Opinion | As smoke darkens the sky, the future becomes clear

Opinion |  As smoke darkens the sky, the future becomes clear

My father, who died of lung cancer, used to say that as soon as people inhaled their first cigarette, they immediately knew, if not denied, that they were hurting themselves.

I felt the same way on Tuesday in New York, my eyes itchy and my nose burned and the taste in my throat like I swallowed a charcoal bonbon. This was supposed to be bad. The sky wasn’t quite the apocalyptic orange of a black summer in Australia or a dark day in San Francisco, but it had turned eerie in a confrontational way, blanketing the city in a blanket of toxic smog.

Until now, if people in the leafy green northeast looked at the dry western cities blanketed in smoke from the fires, they could tell it can’t happen here, thank God. Tuesday it did: for a moment, the quality of the New York’s air was worse than it was in Delhi, the notorious pollution capital where life expectancy is shortened by more than nine years due to particulate matter in the air. By evening, New York had recorded the worst air quality in the world between major cities. And staying indoors may not provide perfect protection.

While winds are fickle and it can be hard to predict where the smoke will travel in the days and weeks ahead, there’s no reason to think the Canadian wildfires coughing this smoke into the atmosphere will stop anytime soon.

In Quebec, more than a hundred fires have been declared out of control by local authorities. Across Canada, 13 times more land has burned to this date than in recent years, many of which had extreme or unprecedented fire levels at the time. And there were still two weeks until summer.

Even before this flurry of smoke Tuesday, Heatmap’s Jeva Lange calculated that East Coasters had inhaled more bushfire pollution this year than most of their West Coast counterparts, thanks to a quieter early fire season. in California. Air is compromised from Minneapolis to DC to Boston, The Washington Posts Capital Weather Gang reported on Tuesday.

A month ago, as wildfires raged in Alberta, I wrote about one of the most frightening revelations of the new fire science: there’s nowhere to escape the smoke. Sixty percent of the pollution from American wildfires is experienced by people living outside the state where the trees are actually burning.

This phenomenon is terrifyingly new: Between 2006 and 2010, according to a recent preprint, there was almost no place in the West where smoke from other counties contributed up to 10 percent of local air pollution; between 2016 and 2020, smoke from distant fires contributed up to half of local air pollution across large swathes of the region.

The health impact of American wildfires is already greater east of the Rocky Mountains than west. Across the country, the number of people exposed to what are sometimes called extreme smoking days has grown 27-fold in just a decade, and exposure to even more extreme smoking events has grown 11,000-fold. Since 2000, growing forest fire pollution has offset significant gains from the Clean Air Act and is set to become the country’s leading source of particulate matter pollution in the coming decades. In this way, this week’s eerie gray glow in the sky was both a throwback to a more tainted past and a harbinger of a future more regularly clouded by toxic airborne events like these.

This is especially painful because of all we’re learning about particulate pollution’s poisonous effects on nearly every measure of health. Globally, all forms of air pollution are responsible for approximately 10 million deaths each year and, aside from mortality, contribute to respiratory and heart disease, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, dementia, cancer, mental illness and suicide, miscarriage and premature birth and low birth weight. According to some recent research, of all forms of particulate pollution, smoke from wildfires may be the most toxic.

The health effects of pollution far from its source haven’t been studied in as much detail, but this distant danger is changing the way we think about the threat of wildfires and climate change. If 10 years ago Californians feared fire, more recently they have begun to fear smoke even though one of the 15 largest fires recorded in the states has occurred in the last two decades. Six of the seven largest have burned since 2020.

Americans in other parts of the country who have experienced that threat mostly scrolling in horror amber Instagrams and dashcam footage of traveling through walls of flames are starting to realize just how far the threat can travel.

But the smoke pouring in from the north could mark another shift in perspective, moving away from the American West as a source of wildfires. Ten percent of the world’s forests rise from Canadian soil, writes John Vaillant in his fascinating new and unfortunately exquisitely timed Fire Weather: A True Story From a Hotter World. More and more those forests seem on the verge of burning.

At the beginning of the book, a meticulous and meditative account of the changing landscape of Canadian fire, Vaillant describes the 1950 Chinchaga fire at some four million acres in western Canada, the largest ever recorded in North America. The fire generated a plume of smoke so large it became known as the Great Smoke Pall of 1950, Vaillant writes. Rising 40,000 feet into the stratosphere, the huge shadow from the plumes lowered average temperatures by several degrees, caused midday birds to roost, and created strange visual effects as it circled the Northern Hemisphere, including widespread reports of only lavender and blue moons. He continues, the last time such effects were reported on this scale was after the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. Carl Sagan was impressed enough by the effects of the Chinchaga fire to wonder if they could resemble those of a nuclear winter.

Vaillant’s book is not about the Chinchaga fire, but about the Horse River fire, also known as the Fort McMurray fire, which in 2016 destroyed thousands of homes in the center of the Athabasca tar sand region boomtown and forced the largest evacuation in Canada. history. Today, to all but the most knowledgeable followers of the fire, it is already all but forgotten, that is to say, overtaken by the subsequent horrors of the fire and thus normalized to almost background noise.

That noise is getting louder as we delve deeper into what fire historian Stephen Pyne calls the pyrocene.

The fire isn’t going away, Vaillant recently told The Guardian. We will burn throughout this century. The Alberta fires had just begun to rage, but he clearly saw the course of change. This is a global change. It’s a sea change and we happen to be alive for it.

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