Climate change (I/III): the deadline for global warming
This is part one of a two-part series on the effects of climate change. You can find part two here.
How can one better protect themselves from the effects of wildfire smoke?
By not going out!
That's what public health officials and medical experts have been advising tens of millions of people in the US for the past few days, as smoke from the wildfires in Canada has drifted into the US, as far south as South Carolina and as far west as Minnesota.
Canada experiences wildfires regularly, but this season's fires have been unusually large and intense, with more than 1,400% of the normal number of acres burned for this time of year, according to ABC News. Tens of thousands of Canadians have been displaced from their homes. Stanford researchers found that the resulting smoke has already produced one of the worst wildfire contamination events in US history.
Alarm in the United States
Many people in the eastern US are experiencing health threats typically associated with the wildfire-prone West Coast, wondering if the smoke they see and smell could become the new normal.
What the science says
The most advanced expert on the subject is a professor of atmospheric sciences at Penn State University, with a specialization in Atmospheric Sciences.
Why are the wildfires in Canada so intense? What caused this situation?
The answer is quick and simple. Canada has a very extreme, slow, and wavy jet stream pattern right now over North America, leading to a prolonged period of unusually dry weather in parts of Ontario and Quebec, which has favored the development of these forest fires.
The current pattern slopes north and south, meandering like a river as it crosses the US, with a big drop from eastern Canada to the eastern US. The stuck jet stream pattern is responsible for the dry conditions in eastern Canada and also for the wind patterns that are carrying wildfire smoke into the US.
"This research suggests that climate change is making these slow, wavy patterns of summer jet streams more common."
There are several things happening, each of which is related to climate change. This region of Canada is warming and is expected to experience more frequent bouts of hot, dry weather.
The very persistent "stuck" jet stream pattern leads to long periods of stagnant weather, and in this case, a long period of very dry weather that lends itself to larger and more extensive wildfires.
How have the wildfires affected Canadians?
Nearly 9 million acres of land have burned in Canadian wildfires so far this year, including half a million in Quebec alone. This has created dangerously poor air conditions not just in Canada, but in increasingly large parts of the eastern and midwestern US. You can smell the smoke from the wildfires in central Pennsylvania.
"For many on the East Coast, the idea of worrying about how wildfire smoke could directly affect it was never considered a possibility."
How bad is it for our health?
This is a sign of much worse things to come if we don't curb the burning of fossil fuels and carbon emissions and continue to warm the planet.
Consequences of climate change
High concentrations of small smoke particles are very dangerous for human health, particularly for the young and old and people suffering from diseases such as asthma. We hear a lot about poor air quality in cities like Beijing due to the high concentration of PM2.5 particles (which interfere with oxygen uptake in the lungs) from coal burning and the resulting sulfur pollution. However, the air quality is even worse in cities like Sydney (during the “black summer”) or in New York City (now) when there is thick smoke from wildfires, which is also high in these small particles transported to the region.
"When these conditions persist over a longer period of time, they can lead to chronic lung and heart problems."
Is it possible to attribute this to climate change?
Yes, of course. Climate change is the only one to blame.
What can be done to prevent forest fires of this severity?
The only way to prevent these events from becoming more frequent and intense is to prevent the continued warming of the planet. The only way to do that is to decarbonise our economy as quickly as possible. The good news is that the planet's surface will stop warming, and these impacts will stop getting worse when we reach net zero carbon emissions. That is where our efforts should be concentrated.
These unusual patterns of jet streams are fueled by human-caused warming. Also, eastern North America, where all this is happening, is a place where we expect the largest increase in combined heat and dryness due to human-caused warming. Add all of that together, and it's a toxic concoction of climate change.
Eastern North America is one of the places where climate scientists expect the largest increase in fire-friendly hot and dry summer weather in the future, so this is a sign of much worse things to come if we don't control fossil fuels.
illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.
About the author
Dr. Diego Balverde is an Economist at the European Central Bank and has extensive experience in climate finance. He is currently also an Advisory Member of the Council of Foreign Trade at The World Bank. Diego is very active on the international sustainability stage having attended COP27 as a Circular economy for Climate Change specialist and will also be attending the G20 Conference in India as part of the Energy, Sustainability and Climate Task Force. Diego holds a PhD in Foreign trade from Chapman University and an MBA degree from Cambridge Judge Business School.