June 7, 2023, may be remembered as the moment we realized that there’s no escape anywhere from one of the most wretched manifestations of climate craziness.
This month the skies above New York’s skyscrapers turned “dystopian tangerine” from wildfire smoke. The Statue of Liberty and Washington Monument all but vanished from view during this remarkable smoke event.
It was a replay of the thick, horrifying hues that hung over San Francisco in 2020. But this time the people choking on smoke were nowhere near the fires.
The smoke that smothered urban American airspace came from Canada — Alberta, Quebec and Nova Scotia.
“We are creating the fire equivalent of the ice age,” says Stephen Pyne, a wildfire expert at Arizona State University, who aptly dubbed this unwelcome new epoch the Pyrocene.
Canada has had 457 wildfires burning since April 1, according to BC Wildfire Service. A record-setting 14 million acres have burned; the 10-year average is roughly 900,000 acres burned.
Perverse winds deposited Canadian smoke as far away as Norway — as well as in Minneapolis, Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto. Twenty-nine thousand residents of Alberta, a major producer of the fossil fuels that end up feeding wildfires, had to be evacuated.
Hello? Did we hear a bell ring in Alberta?
The poisonous air New Yorkers were breathing registered 407 parts per million on the Air Quality Index Scale, which tops out at 500 ppm. (At 150 ppm, smoky air becomes unhealthy. At 301 ppm, it’s hazardous.)
New York therapists reported an outbreak of “eco-anxiety” among their patients. Well? New York City is not a forest. It stands to reason that New Yorkers might assume that though rising seas may swamp them, wildfires will not choke them. But we are well past reason, at least as we once understood that term when applied to climate.
So resist the temptation to mock these urban dwellers; anxiety is appropriate. Any sentient New Yorker now understands the danger wildfires pose to people living thousands of miles away.
Perhaps a few million of them will translate their anxiety into a demand for an end to fossil fuels?
Rising seas, water-soaked hurricanes, massive floods and snowfalls are local misfortunes. But we cannot say the same for wildfire smoke. What burns in Wildfire Central — California, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Canada — does not stay there.
To understand what the future holds for us here in the Methow by way of imported smoke, take a look at a map of Canada’s forests.
Lord knows we hereabouts are well supplied with our own wildfire fuels. Yet Canada has the world’s largest intact forest ecosystem. Much of it sits on thick, smolder-prone duff (which allows fires to overwinter under snow and re-emerge come spring) in the volatile boreal spruce forests above the border in British Columbia. We are downwind.
So far this year, British Columbia has burned more than two million acres of forests; its 20-year average burn rate is 40,000 acres. Yet Canada’s huge forest mass likely holds enough fuel to burn for many decades.
May was the hottest and driest on record in Canada. Global warming has triggered droughts that facilitate ignition of Canada’s forests, scientists say.
Much of the greenhouse gas released by burning fossil fuels has been captured in the oceans, and they are getting warmer. Ocean heat-up affects behavior of winds. Scientists cannot precisely predict the effect hotter water in the oceans will have on historic wind patterns and windstorm intensity. Yet when it comes to wildfires and their smoke, winds drive the agenda.
What’s left behind
Why worry about smoke? After all, it eventually drifts away.
Turns out that wildfire smoke leaves more behind than we’ve understood. Smoke is rich in inflammatory, long-lived toxins that can travel long distances in the atmosphere, scientists have learned.
It’s not just about asthma and lung disease. Stroke, diabetes, dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and cancer all have been linked to smoke exposure.
Smoke-borne toxins are capable not only of penetrating lungs but also misbehave at the “gut-brain axis” via intestinal flora, research indicates. And brain tumors can be triggered by smoke intake directly through the nostrils, researchers have found.
What’s not understood is how much smoke exposure at what toxicity levels is required to trigger specific health outcomes.
What is known is this: During the awful 2020 fire season in California, 30 people died as a direct result of the fires, which laid a toxic pall of smoke over 95% of the state, in some places for as long as four months. Stanford University researchers estimate that thousands of people eventually died from effects of those fires.
Also unknown is how we’re to deal with what we’re learning about the health dangers of exposure to wildfire smoke, or how to pay the social costs of avoiding it should we get serious about doing that.
What’s to be done, for example, about preventing smoke from infiltrating the millions of unsealed homes in smoke-prone areas? Sealing classrooms and nursing homes against smoke? Funding research necessary to fully understand links between wildfire smoke and human health?
Climate change is, as long promised, unimaginably costly. Every year it gets costlier. Denial and delay brought us the costs we bear today.
And the “lost opportunity costs” rise in tandem with the fossil fumes as we upload ever more of them into the atmosphere.
Solveig Torvik lives near Winthrop.