A FAMILY WITH AN ESPECIALLY FLUFFY GOLDEN DOODLE EMBARKED ON A HIKE along the Arroyo Seco River on the morning of Saturday, Aug. 15. But they made it only a few dozen feet when a ranger with the U.S. Forest Service intercepted them and all but begged them to turn back around. “Your dog will likely die of the heat if you continue,” he said, warning of temperatures rising to 120 degrees in the eastern Ventana Wilderness. “His paws will peel off in layers as the ground scorches his flesh.”
The family turned around to save the pup. But some 15 hours later, they could not protect him from another horror, a summer thunderstorm that left him alternately barking and whimpering for hours through the night.
Much of the lightning generated by the storm appeared offshore over the Monterey Bay, while the number of lightning strikes that hit the ground in Monterey County was 65, according to the National Weather Service, a federal agency that monitors the weather and provides meteorological forecasts.
One of those strikes ignited dry vegetation near Toro Peak, close to Pine Canyon Road off of River Road south of Salinas, causing a wildfire that has consumed 10,672 acres as of Aug. 19. It was one of more than a dozen fires started by lightning strikes in California.
Meteorologists have an explanation for the unusual weather patterns of the past few days. From the desert of the southwestern United States came a weather system of high, hot and dry pressure that generated a historic heatwave that has placed about 56 million Americans under a heat advisory or warning, according to the NWS. It was the hottest Aug. 16 on record in Monterey, Salinas and King City. Meanwhile, a tropical storm off the coast of Baja California was also moving in, bringing atmospheric moisture. As the two weather systems met, they created the conditions for a dry thunder and lightning storm with no or little rainfall.
“This 20-year forecaster can’t recall such a widespread [thunderstorm] event on the heels of such a heatwave,” one NWS meteorologist wrote in a forecast discussion on Aug. 17. Later, meteorologists said the storm was comparable to Northern California’s 2008 lighting siege.
The feeling that the weather was rare or even unprecedented raised the question of whether the climate crisis is the cause. Climate scientists and meteorologists usually cannot tie any particular event to climate change, because the research only points to longer-term trends.
However, science does say that heatwaves are becoming both more common and more severe as a result of our burning of fossil fuels. “The human influence on heat waves is clear,” Dr. Michael Wehner of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory said in a statement. “For most of California, climate change has caused rare heatwaves to be from 3 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer.”
In the same way, it’s difficult to say that a wildfire was the result of climate change, but it’s clear that the increase in wildfires of recent decades is linked to human activity.
“The intensified heat of human-caused climate change has doubled the area burned by wildfire over natural levels across the western U.S. since 1984,” Dr. Patrick Gonzalez of the National Park Service said in a statement about California’s weather conditions this week.
Lightning itself is now better understood as well, and it turns out to be both a symptom of climate change – and, weirdly, a cause of it. Each strike releases nitrogen oxides, which are potent greenhouse gases.
Fire officials predict full containment of the River Fire by Aug. 30.