The smoke and haze from raging wildfires in Canada covered the eastern United States this week, prompting air quality warnings across the eastern seaboard.
New York City’s skyline is barely visible in pictures from the St. George Tower in Brooklyn on Wednesday afternoon. Orange skies in New Jersey on Tuesday made little league baseball games look like a scene on the planet Tatooine. And schools in Washington, D.C., scheduled indoor recess due to poor air quality in the city, which smelled vaguely of campfires throughout the day on Wednesday.
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The source of the gathering gloom is the smoke from a series of wildfires in Canada. It’s not new to have fires in Canada but the current blazes are far beyond anything seen in recent decades, causing excessive smoke that has borne down on Canadian and U.S. cities. There have been more fires in Canada in May and the first few days of June than there usually are across the whole summer.
The situation is unprecedented but also part of a growing trend of longer, hotter wildfire seasons in both Canada and the United States. The crisis adding fuel to the fire, quite literally, is climate change.
“In Canada, our burn has doubled since the 1970s, and my colleagues and I attribute this largely, but not solely, to human-caused climate change,” says Mike Flannigan, a professor at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia, who has been researching wildfire and climate change for 30 years.
What is going on with all of these Canadian wildfires?
Canada is experiencing what could become their worst wildfire season on record, due to ongoing drought and warm temperatures. Wildfires are at more than 10 times their normal average so far this year, and in May alone Canada saw more than 6.6 million acres burn — a total almost the size of Massachusetts.
Warm and dry conditions will continue to increase wildfire risk in most of Canada in June and July, according to a wildfire outlook from Canadian officials this week.
“It is, in a word, sobering,” Canada’s minister of natural resources, Jonathan Wilkinson, told reporters at a press briefing June 5. “This year’s already devastating season could well get worse.”
Dry weather, high temperatures and reduced snowpack are inflaming and intensifying wildfire seasons.
“Wildfires certainly took place before we started to clearly see the acceleration of the effects of climate change,” Wilkinson said at the press briefing, speaking in French through an interpreter. “However, we are now experiencing a new reality, one where we need to pay attention to what science is telling us.”
How are the Canadian wildfires affecting air quality?
The immense dark plumes of smoke from the Canadian wildfires have dissipated into hazy conditions and air quality warnings across the eastern and midwestern United States. The smoke naturally moves on air currents, and the heat of wildfires can push smoke higher into the atmosphere, helping it to travel longer distances.
The pollution from these particles is at historic levels in some cities along the East Coast. New York City now has the distinction of some of the worst air quality in the world — ranking third at midday Wednesday, just behind Delhi and Dahka — according to IQAir, a Swiss air monitoring company.
Wildfire smoke contains fine particles of smoke and soot. Scientists say the particulates from wildfires can be more toxic than from some other sources, since a wildfire burns everything in its path — not just trees and shrubs but also parts of homes, trash, and plastics.
The smoky air affects the heart and lungs and can leave people gasping for breath, especially the very young and very old. Researchers have connected poor air quality from wildfires to increased hospitalizations and premature births. Researchers at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign estimated in 2017 that wildfire smoke has caused 500 more deaths per year in the United States.
What role does climate change play in the Canadian wildfires?
There are three main ingredients that create a wildfire: fuel (grasses, plants, leaves, trees, and anything that burns), ignitions (from humans or lightning), and dry conditions. Climate change is bringing more hot, dry weather that creates the perfect tinderbox for disaster. On a hot, windy day, a spark or lightning can quickly ignite wildfire fuel.
“We are seeing a lot more fires in the western United States and Canada over the last few decades, with a notable increase just in the last few years,” says Matthew Wibbenmeyer, who studies climate and wildfire management as a fellow at Resources for the Future.
It is not a linear trend, since some years are better than others. But the area burned by wildfires has doubled in Canada since the 1970s and quadrupled in the western United States in that same time. Longer, dryer summers have erased the concept of a “fire season” and turned it into a “fire year” in some parts of the arid West.
Meanwhile, the fires themselves are erasing some of our gains in efforts to fight climate change, as carbon dioxide from the fires spews into the atmosphere. In one study, researchers determined emissions from the 2020 wildfires in California could have wiped out the gains the state had made in greenhouse gas reductions since 2003.
“It can be a pretty significant amount of carbon released by these fires and of course that creates a sort of vicious cycle,” says Wibbenmeyer.
So what do we do when the world is literally on fire? Flannigan suggests government agencies should have better advanced planning. Instead of just reacting to fires, they should plan ahead for them. That could mean bringing in additional firefighting resources ahead of time instead of after a fire starts, burying power lines so they don’t cause sparks, or keeping visitors out of forests during high-risk fire days.
Flannigan stresses that urgent action is needed to address climate change — an urgency that has only grown since he first started speaking on the perils of climate and wildfire 25 years ago.“I am really concerned, because it has just gone crazy,” he says, “and I expect more crazy in the future.”
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