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Climate change continues to make wildfires and smoke worse. Scientists call it the ‘new abnormal’


A runner runs along McCovey Cove outside Oracle Park in San Francisco, under skies darkened by wildfire smoke on Sept. 9, 2020. AP FILE PHOTO

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

Kuchlbauer had flashbacks to the surprise of soot covering his car three years ago, when he had just graduated from college in San Diego. Bomba had a deja vu from San Francisco, where the air was so smoky that people had to mask up. They thought California wildfire concerns were behind them, but a Canada burning from sea to sea has brought one of the most visceral effects of climate change to places that once seemed immune.

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

As Earth’s climate continues to change due to heat-trapping gases spewed into the air, fewer and fewer people are out of reach of the billowing, deadly fingers of wildfire smoke, scientists say. Wildfires are already consuming three times more of the United States and Canada each year than in the 1980s, and studies predict that the fires and smoke will only get worse.

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 that idea because the phrase makes it seem like the world has shifted into a new and constant pattern of extreme events.

“Is this a new normal? No, it’s a new abnormal,” said Michael Mann, a climatologist at the University of Pennsylvania. “It keeps getting worse. If we continue to warm the planet, we will not settle into a new state. It’s a constantly moving baseline of worse and worse.”

It’s so bad that perhaps the term “wildfire” should be rethought as well, suggested Woodwell Center for Climate Research senior scientist Jennifer Francis.

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

Several scientists told the AP that the problem of smoke and wildfires will get progressively worse until the world significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions, which has not happened despite years of international negotiations and lofty goals.

In general, the fires in North America are getting worse and burning more land. Even before July, traditionally the month with the most fires in the country, Canada set a record for the largest area burned with 31,432 square miles (81,409 square kilometers), almost 15% more than the previous record.

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

Numerous studies have linked climate change to increased fires in North America because global warming is increasing extreme weather events, especially droughts and especially in the West.

As the atmosphere dries, it absorbs moisture from plants, creating more fuel that burns easier, faster, and more intensely. It then adds more lightning from more storms, some of which is dry lightning, 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 to attend college in 2018 and now lives in Chicago, said it seemed like a joke at first: Wildfire smoke trailed him and his West Coast friends. But if it continues, it won’t be as much fun anymore.

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

Wildfires in the US on average now burn about 12,000 square miles (31,000 square kilometers) a 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) burned annually.

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), which is three and a half times more than the average from 1983 to 1987.

The kind of fires seen this year in western Canada are in 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 fire years. occasional ones like this until the middle of the 21st century, Flannigan said.

If eastern Canada is burning, that means eventually, and likely sooner than researchers thought, eastern US states will, too, Flannigan said. He and Williams pointed to the devastating fires in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, that killed 14 people in 2016 during a brief drought in the East.

The United States burned much more in the past, but that’s because people didn’t try to stop the fires and they were less of a threat. The West used to have bigger, more regular fires until the mid-19th century, with more land settlements and then the US government trying to put out all the fires after the Great Yellowstone Fire in 1910, Williams said.

Since about the 1950s, the United States has virtually reduced wildfires to a minimum, but that hasn’t been the case since about the year 2000.

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

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 mid-latitudes get smaller. That allows airstream high above the ground to meander and choke, prolonging bouts of bad weather, Mann and Francis said. Other scientists say they are waiting for more evidence on the impact of bad weather events.

A new study published June 23 links a stuck weather pattern to reduced snowpack across North America in the spring.

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

Wildfires expose around 44 million people a year globally to unhealthy air, causing around 677,000 deaths a year, nearly 39% of which are children, according to a 2021 study conducted at the United Kingdom.

A study looking at a dozen years of exposure to wildfire smoke in Washington state showed a 1% increase across all ages in the odds of non-traumatic death on the same day the smoke hit the area and on the 2 % the next day. The risk of respiratory deaths increased by 14% and even more, 35%, for adults aged 45 to 64.

Based on peer-reviewed studies, the Health Effects Institute estimated that the leading smoke pollutant caused 4 million deaths worldwide and nearly 48,000 deaths in the US 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 its size has drawn attention, its composition is also important, said Kris Ebi, a climate and health scientist at the University of Washington.

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

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

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

“In the long term, climate change and unfortunately wildfire smoke is not going to go away because we haven’t really done that fast enough to make a difference,” Avol said, adding that while people can take steps like wearing masks or air filters to try to protect themselves, we are ultimately “behind here in terms of responding.”


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Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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