Climate change continues to aggravate wildfires and smoke. Scientists call it the “new abnormal”

It was a smell that evoked a memory. Both for Emily Kuchlbauer in North Carolina and for Ryan Bomba in Chicago. It was the smoke from forest fires, the smell of a world growing hotter and sometimes on fire.

Kuchlbauer had startled flashbacks to soot covering her car three years ago when she was a recent graduate of the University of San Diego. Bomba had a deja vu of San Francisco, where the air was so smoky that people had to wear masks. They thought they had left the worries of the California wildfires behind, but a Canada burning from sea to sea has brought back one of the most visceral effects of climate change to places that seemed formerly immune.

“It’s been a very apocalyptic feeling, because in California the dialogue is like, ‘Oh, this is normal. This is exactly what’s happening on the West Coast,’ but it’s really not normal. here,” Kuchlbauer said.

As Earth’s climate continues to change from heat-trapping gases released into the air, fewer and fewer people are beyond the reach of the swollen, deadly fingers of wildfire smoke, scientists say. Already, wildfires are consuming three times more of the United States and Canada each year than they did in the 1980s and studies predict worsening fires and smoke.

While many people exposed to bad air may wonder if this is a “new normal,” several scientists told The Associated Press that they specifically reject such an idea because the phrase gives the impression that the world has changed to a new stable pattern of extreme events.

“Is this a new normal? No, it’s a new anomaly,” said University of Pennsylvania climatologist Michael Mann. “It just keeps getting worse. If we keep warming the planet, we’re not settling into a new state. It’s an ever-shifting baseline that gets worse and worse.

It’s so bad that the term “wildfire” may also need to be rethought, suggested Jennifer Francis, senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center.

“We can’t really call them wildfires anymore,” Francis said. “To some degree they just aren’t, they’re not wild. They are no longer natural. We just make them more likely. We make them more intense.

Several scientists told the AP that the problem of smoke and wildfires will gradually get worse until the world drastically cuts greenhouse gas emissions, which hasn’t happened despite years of international negotiations and ambitious goals.

Fires in North America are generally getting worse, burning more land. Even before July, traditionally the country’s busiest fire month, Canada set a record for the largest area burned at 31,432 square miles (81,409 square kilometers), nearly 15% more than the old record.

“A year like this could happen with or without climate change, but warming temperatures have made it much more likely,” said A. Park Williams, a UCLA bioclimatologist who studies fire and water. “We are seeing, particularly in the West, large increases in smoke exposure and reductions in air quality that are attributable to increased fire activity.”

Many studies have linked climate change to increased fires in North America, as global warming increases extreme weather, especially drought and primarily in the West.

As the atmosphere dries, it sucks moisture from plants, creating more fuel that burns easier, faster, and with greater intensity. Then you add more lightning strikes from more thunderstorms, some of which are dry lightning strikes, said Canadian fire scientist Mike Flannigan of Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia. Fire seasons are getting longer, starting earlier and lasting later due to warmer weather, he said.

“We have to learn to live with fire and smoke, that’s the new reality,” Flannigan said.

Ronak Bhatia, who moved from California to Illinois for college in 2018 and now lives in Chicago, said at first it sounded like a joke: Wildfire smoke was following him and his friends from the West Coast. But if it continues, it won’t be so funny.

“It makes you think about climate change and also how it could basically affect, you know, anywhere,” Bhatia said. “It’s not just California’s problem or Australia’s problem. It’s a bit of a problem everywhere.

Wildfires in the United States burn an average of about 12,000 square miles (31,000 square kilometers) per year, about the size of Maryland. From 1983 to 1987, when the National Interagency Fire Center began keeping statistics, only about 3,300 square miles (8,546 square kilometers) were burning each year.

Over the past five years, including a record low in 2020, Canada has burned an average of 12,279 square miles (31,803 square kilometers), three and a half times more than the 1983 to 1987 average.

The types of fires seen this year in western Canada match the amounts predicted by scientists and computer models for the 2030s and 2040s. And eastern Canada, where it rains more often, wasn’t supposed to see occasional fire years like this through the middle of the 21st century, Flannigan said.

If eastern Canada burns, that means that eventually, and probably sooner than researchers thought, the eastern states of the United States will too, Flannigan said. He and Williams reported devastating fires in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, that killed 14 people in 2016 during a brief drought in the East.

America burned a lot more in the past, but that’s because people weren’t trying to stop the fires and they were less of a threat. The West used to have larger, regular fires until the mid-19th century, with more land settlement, and then the US government trying to put out every fire after the Great Yellowstone Fire in 1910, has said Williams.

Since about the 1950s, America has pretty much kept wildfires to a minimum, but that hasn’t been the case since about 2000.

“We thought we had it under control, but we don’t,” Williams said. “The climate has changed so much that we have lost control of it.”

The warmer the Arctic gets and the more snow and ice melt there – the Arctic is warming three times faster than the rest of the Earth – the differences in summer between the Arctic and the mid-latitudes are reduced. This allows the air jet above the ground to meander and get stuck, prolonging bouts of bad weather, Mann and Francis said. Other scientists say they are waiting for more evidence on the impact of blocked time episodes.

A new study published June 23 links a stalled weather pattern to reduced snow cover in North America in the spring.

For people exposed to the foul air of wildfire smoke, growing health threats are part of the new reality.

Wildfires expose around 44 million people a year worldwide to unhealthy air, causing around 677,000 deaths a year, nearly 39% of them children, according to a 2021 study in the UK.

A study that looked at a dozen years of exposure to smoke from wildfires in Washington State showed a 1% increase in all ages in the risk of non-traumatic death on the same day that the smoke hit the area and 2% the next day. The risk of respiratory death jumped 14% and even more, 35%, for adults aged 45 to 64.

Based on peer-reviewed studies, the Health Effects Institute estimated that the main pollutant in smoke caused 4 million deaths worldwide and nearly 48,000 deaths in the United States in 2019.

The tiny particles that make up one of the main pollutants in wildfire smoke, called PM2.5, are just the right size to embed themselves deep in the lungs and be absorbed into the blood. But while their size has captured attention, their composition also matters, said Kris Ebi, a climate and health scientist at the University of Washington.

“There is new evidence that the toxicity of smoke from PM2.5 wildfires is more toxic than what comes out of tailpipes,” Ebi said.

A cascade of health effects can become a growing problem following wildfires, including downwind of the source, said Ed Avol, professor emeritus at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of California. from South.

Beyond irritated eyes and a scratchy throat, breathing in smoke from a wildfire can also create long-term problems throughout the body. Avol said these include respiratory effects, including asthma and COPD, as well as impacts on heart, brain and kidney function.

“Longer term, climate change and unfortunately wildfire smoke aren’t going away because we really haven’t moved fast enough to make a difference,” Avol said, adding that while people may take measures like masking up or using air filters to try to protect ourselves, we are ultimately “late here to respond to it”.


Borenstein reported from Washington and Walling from Chicago.


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