Shawn Vestal: Will smoke wake us up to climate change?

August 21, 2018

We were crossing the bridge at Vantage on Sunday, returning from Seattle, when we noticed that the Columbia River was all but invisible beneath the dense pall of smoke.

It was as if the smoke had not merely obscured the river, but replaced it along with everything else – no horizon, no hills, no horse sculptures on the ridgeline – just smoke, smoke, smoke, and running beneath it all, a river of smoke.

It became thicker yet as we drove home, where we coughed and rubbed our eyes and complained and noticed that the jaundiced, apocalyptic haze was now inside the house, now all around, touching us, inescapable.

Is this our new fourth season – smoke replacing summer? Shall we resew our swimsuits into facemasks? Will snowbirds become smoke-birds, too, fleeing for clean air every August? Will the coughing of children become our seasonal anthem?

If that’s hyperbolic, well, the omnipresent smoke produces that, too – claustrophobic desperation. Unfortunately, it is not remotely hyperbolic to recognize that we are going to see more of this in the future. More wildfires all around the West. More destruction and death, more smoke-filled days. More homes and farms burned, more forests flattened and black.

And it is not remotely hyperbolic to recognize that this is all true to a significant degree because of climate change.

While some politicians are trying very hard right now to remain blind to the role of climate change in wildfires, the fact that global warming is driving the growth of Western wildfires is not a matter of debate among the people who study it.

Neither is the fact that we should expect more of it in the future.

We should always be cautious about blaming individual events – like today’s weather or today’s air quality index – on climate change. And there are definitely other factors involved in our regional wildfires, such as the buildup of fuels and the reliably idiotic behavior of some people in starting the fires.

But the warming planet has worsened the problem, and scientists expect it to keep worsening it.

The director of the Western Partnership for Wildland Fire Science at the University of Alberta put it very simply to Scientific American last year: “A warmer world will have drier fuels. Drier fuels will mean it’s easier for fires to start and spread.”

We in the West are canaries in this coal mine. Like, way, way, way into the coal mine, but still: this smoke is pushing our inaction on climate right into our faces. As the Union of Concerned Scientists puts it, “The range of projected temperature increases in the Western U.S. by mid-century (2040 – 2070) represents a choice of two possible futures – from one in which we drastically reduce heat-trapping emissions … to a future in which we continue with ‘business as usual.’”

Business as usual, the union predicts, will result in dramatically more wildfires. The average annual temperature in the Western U.S. has risen 1.9 percent since 1970, according to the union. Another rise of that magnitude is predicted to send the “annual burn area” skyrocketing – some parts of the Inland Northwest would see burn acreages doubling or even tripling by mid-century, according to the union’s analysis. The very worst regions of the West – like central Idaho or western Montana – might see annual burn areas increase by 500 percent to 650 percent.

Again, that’s the worst-case scenario in a situation that is not certain. But don’t let that mislead you: the uncertainty is a matter of degree, not general direction.

In research published in 2016 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, University of Idaho associate geology professor John Abatzoglou and a fellow researcher concluded that human-caused increases in temperature – and reduced vapor pressure in the atmosphere – contributed to an increase of nine days a year of high fire potential in the Western forests between 2000 and 2015. They calculate that anthropogenic climate change accounted for just over half of the observed increases in fuel aridity from 1979 to 2015 in the West.

“This analysis suggests that anthropogenic climate change will continue to chronically enhance the potential for western US forest fire activity” without a dramatic change in fuel load, they wrote.

Other research has focused on the effects of climate change on producing an earlier arrival of spring – which contributes to earlier snowmelt, more drought and more fires. Scientists have predicted warming would fuel stronger winds, especially in California, which contribute to larger wildfires, and they’ve studied the effect of warmer temperatures on increasing lightning strikes that cause some of the fires.

It’s obvious to any serious person that this is a big part of the problem. The only question – which is really just a subset of the larger question about global warming – is how smoke-blind we’ll have to become before we act.

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