As wildfires rage in Canada and smoke blankets the eastern US, the climate crisis has moved ever-more-firmly into the present. The air quality in New York City became the worst on the planet. Schools across the eastern US cancelled outdoor activities, flights have been halted, and Broadway stages have gone quiet. Welcome to the apocalyptic haze of the new AbNormal.
One of us is haunted by an eerily similar experience during the 2019/2020 “black summer” of Australia, when that continent was set ablaze by an unprecedented combination of record heat and drought. And just as was the case then, and again during the western US wildfires of summer 2020, the fossil fuel industry-coddling conservative media – in particular the Murdoch media empire – engaged in a massive disinformation campaign to convince us that it’s natural. Or a result of forest management policies. Or arson. Anything to draw our attention from the real culprit – the incendiary combination of greater summer heat and worse summer drought that is a direct result of fossil fuel burning and the warming of our planet.
Now they’re at it again, offering up the very same canards and distractions, hoping to prevent people from connecting the dots and thereby deny us the teachable moment we so need to spur greater climate action. So let’s clear the air, if you’ll forgive the unfortunate pun.
We know that a hotter climate has increased fire weather – hotter, drier conditions that lead to larger, more intense wildfires. But there’s another more subtle and specific way that human-caused warming is implicated in the current Canadian fires. There’s an extreme, slow, wavy jet stream pattern now over North America, leading to an extended period of unusually dry weather over parts of Ontario and Quebec, which has favored the development of these wildfires. This wavy pattern dips far north and south, meandering like a river, with a huge dip from eastern Canada down into the eastern United States. This stuck jet stream pattern is responsible for both the dry conditions in eastern Canada and the wind patterns that are transporting the wildfire smoke toward us in the United States.
Research suggests that climate change is making these slow, wavy summer jet stream patterns more common. In addition, eastern North America is one of the locations where we expect the greatest future increase in the hot, dry, summer weather conducive to fires. So the current fires are a preview of far worse things to come if we don’t rein in fossil fuel burning and the resulting carbon pollution that continues to heat up the planet.
The air smells smoky in Pennsylvania where one of us lives, and the haze has even reached western North Carolina, where the other of us resides. The smoke from wildfires contains hundreds of chemicals, many of which are harmful to our health. The poor air quality has serious health implications, particularly for the young, the elderly, and people with conditions like asthma and other lung and heart issues. We hear a lot about poor air quality in cities like Beijing owing to the high concentration of tiny particles from coal burning. But the air quality is even worse in New York City right now due to the thick wildfire smoke, which is also high in these fine particles. In fact, it’s historically bad, the worst by far since such data have been collected. A rapid analysis found that people in New York are being exposed to levels of air pollution more than five times above the national air quality standard.
Known as PM2.5 (particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in size), these particles are so tiny – one-twentieth to one-thirtieth the width of a human hair – that they can be inhaled deep into the lungs and from there enter the bloodstream, where they can harm the heart, lungs and other vital organs, increasing the risk of stroke, heart attacks, and respiratory problems. Research has shown that the fine particles in wildfire smoke are up to ten times as harmful to human health as fine particles from other sources of air pollution. What’s more, the proportion of fine particles coming from wildfires is increasing, accounting for a quarter of these particles in the US in recent years, and up to half in parts of the West.
More of us are now exposed to wildfire smoke than ever before. Over the past decade, there has been a 27-fold increase in the number of Americans experiencing at least one “extreme smoke day,” defined as air quality that’s unhealthy for all age groups. In 2020 alone, nearly 25 million Americans were affected by dangerous smoke. The increase has essentially wiped out the air quality gains made by the Clean Air Act in the U.S. West. And no matter where you live, there is no escape from the impacts. While the majority of large wildfires occur in the U.S. West, the majority (about 75 per cent) of the illness and death attributable to wildfire smoke occurs in the more population-dense U.S. East.
Because the effects are so far flung, increased wildfire smoke may well be the climate change impact that more of us are now experiencing than any other. But it’s far from the only impact already affecting our lives. For many, the melting of far-off glaciers and ice sheets is bringing sea level rise to their doorsteps. For others, more intense hurricanes and typhoons carrying more flooding rains and storm surge are wreaking havoc with their lives. Climate change is a global problem that brings local impacts to all of us. Coal burned in India means impacts in Indiana. Methane leaked in North America contributes to crop failures and famine a world away.
Given our decades of work on climate change, people often ask us where they should go to be safe. But in the era of human-caused climate disruption, there is no place to hide. For better or for worse, this is our planetary home. Let’s preserve it.
Susan Joy Hassol is the director of Climate Communication. She publishes Quick Facts on the links between extreme weather and climate change, and authored a feature article on the importance of language in communicating on climate.
Michael E. Mann is presidential distinguished professor and director of the Center for Science, Sustainability and the Media at The University of Pennsylvania. He is author of “The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet.”