With so much toxic wildfire smoke crossing the Canadian border and upending life in the eastern United States, it raises a troubling question: Will there be more of it in the coming years, and if so, what can be done about it?
Let’s take a step back first. The average temperature on Earth has risen due to the uncontrolled burning of coal, oil and gas for 150 years. This has created the conditions for more frequent and intense heat waves.
That extra heat in the atmosphere has increased the likelihood of extreme, sometimes catastrophic, weather around the world. While that doesn’t always mean the same extremes in the same places, certain places are more prone to certain disasters due to geography. Australia could see more intense drought. Low-lying islands are expected to experience higher storm surges as sea levels rise.
In places that get hot and dry, wildfires can become more frequent or more intense.
The unifying fact is that more warmth is the new normal.
The best way to risk higher temperatures in the future, scientists say, is to reduce the burning of fossil fuels. There are also many ways to adjust to warmer weather and its dangers.
What about fire and smoke in the northeast?
Eastern Canada, which has erupted in extraordinary fires, is expected to be wetter on average, especially in winter. The projections are less clear for summers, when soil moisture is important for creating fire conditions, according to Park Williams, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Eastern North America is also expected to get much hotter, with many more days when maximum temperatures will rise above 35 degrees Celsius, or 95 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
So in a dry year, the extra heat is likely to increase fire risks. That happened this year in parts of Quebec. Snow melted early. Spring was unusually dry. Trees turned into tinder.
The northeast of the United States is also expected to become wetter in the coming years. But as Ellen L. Mecray, the director of Eastern Regional Climate Services at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said, “We’ve also experienced more frequent seasonal droughts, in part due to rising temperatures, changing precipitation patterns and loss of soil moisture. ..”
As for air pollution, she said, wildfire smoke from the West, even dust in the Sahara, can travel across the globe to the United States and carry dangerous particles, according to the latest National Climate Assessment, published in 2018.
“From a human health standpoint, we are concerned about the frequency and duration of such smoke events,” said Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux, a climate scientist at the University of Vermont who led the Northeast Americas section of the report.
The Northeast faces other more persistent risks.
Heat first. By 2035, average temperatures are expected to rise more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) from pre-industrial levels, according to the National Climate Assessment. That is larger and earlier than the global average.
Rising average temperatures increase the likelihood of more frequent and intense heat waves. That’s especially risky for people who work outside the home or can’t afford air conditioning.
Second, there is a risk of sea level rise for coastal areas in the northeast. That means a flood risk affecting millions of people. Cities have long been warned to prepare by improving drainage, opening up floodplains, planting shade trees and encouraging better building insulation.
Fire risks are high in other parts of the country.
In the Southeastern United States, climate models indicate “increased fire risk and a longer fire season.” According to the National Climate Assessment, fires ignited by lightning (as opposed to humans) are expected to increase by at least 30 percent by 2060.
In western states, the wildfire season is already longer due to higher temperatures, drought and earlier snowmelt. By mid-century, the assessment concluded, the area burned there could at least double.
California could get a break this year due to a wet winter and spring. But not necessarily the Pacific Northwest. Dr. Williams, the climate scientist, said that “if a major heat wave occurs in that region this summer, I expect the fuels will be dry enough to support major fires.”
What would limit the damage or help people cope?
Most fires in Quebec appear to have been started by lightning. Elsewhere, such as the western United States, human carelessness and the mismanagement of aging power lines have led to catastrophic fires. Both are solvable problems.
Fire experts say mechanical thinning of forests, as well as “prescribed burns” – the intentional burning of undergrowth – can also reduce the spread of wildfires, but with risks.
Some things that protect people from heat also help protect against smoke from wildfires. Leaking, poorly insulated buildings are just as dangerous on hot days as they are in smoke.
The most efficient way to prevent the temperature from rising further is to reduce the burning of fossil fuels. They are the drivers of heat and its dangers.