Earth Matters: wildfires, climate change and our health

Earth Matters: wildfires, climate change and our health

By Patti Wood

Last week as we were being told to close our windows and doors, cancel outdoor activities and once again don our N95 masks, some were shocked to learn that our air was being affected by a distant event in another country. The word “apocalyptic” was even used by news outlets.

Wildfires in Canada almost a thousand miles away from the New York metropolitan area created a veil of smoke and particulate matter with a sickening orange hue that made even the sun a shadow of itself. Before I was aware of what was happening, I thought there might be a house fire nearby as the smell of burning wood was overpowering, even inside my house.

Wildfires have always been a natural part of forest ecosystems, with nature seeing to it that a healthy balance is maintained. In essence, burning forests produce a number of greenhouse gases and aerosols, including carbon dioxide, methane and black carbon, but the trees that regrow in the burned areas eventually begin to remove carbon from the atmosphere, creating a net neutral effect on climate. But when fires burn more frequently and consume much larger areas, the released greenhouse gases may not be removed from the atmosphere if the new growth doesn’t get a chance to mature before burning again. More simply, the more mature the trees, the more efficient they are at carbon uptake.

Climate change is playing a key role in increasing the risk and extent of wildfires, with high temperatures and drought being the most important factors. And, of course, you need fuel, and that is provided in organic matter in the form of dry trees, grasses and other undergrowth. Projections have shown that an average annual one-degree celsius increase could widen the burned area of a forest fire as much as 600% in some types of forests.

The wildfires across Canada are being driven by these factors plus strong winds. Over 400 wildfires across Canada have scorched nearly a million acres, 15 times the normal burned area for this time of year. This trend so early in the season has climate scientists very concerned about northern Canada’s boreal forests, which are major carbon sinks, storing a large percentage of all land-based carbon in the world, most of it in the soil. They have been playing a vital role in holding back the climate crisis. If fire activity continues at the current pace, Canadian officials said that scientific modeling shows that Canada is on track to experience the worst wildfire season in its recorded history, and many of the fires are exhibiting alarming rotational patterns, creating their own clouds and spreading smoke across the continent.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of some of the world’s top climate researchers, has said that unless humans drastically reduce the burning of fossil fuels, wildfire seasons are likely to grow longer and cause irreparable damage to the planet.

So why should we be worried about the smoke from wildfires that filled our skies and seeped into our homes? Wildfire smoke is comprised of a mixture of gases like carbon monoxide, hazardous air pollutants like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), water vapor, and very small particulate matter. This particulate matter, known as PM2.5, represents a main component of wildfire smoke and is the principal public health threat.

The particles are about 100 times smaller than a human hair and when we breathe in these particles, they get into our lungs where they can then travel to all parts of our bodies. So exposure to smoke is not just a respiratory issue; it can affect the entire body. Pregnant women, young children, the elderly and those who suffer from respiratory illnesses and chronic diseases are particularly vulnerable.

Wildfires that burn in residential areas can melt PVC plastic water pipes, causing contamination of water systems with a known chemical carcinogen. And trees that take up other chemicals in the environment, such as pesticides and fertilizers, pollution from power plants and polluting industries, and vehicle exhaust, can release those chemicals when burning, posing additional health risks from wildfire smoke.

New York U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer gave this warning: “We cannot ignore that climate change continues to make these disasters worse. Warmer temperatures and severe droughts mean forests burn faster, burn hotter and burn bigger,” Schumer said. “This smoke and fog over New York and the rest of the Northeast is a warning from nature that we have a lot of work to do to reverse the destruction of climate change.”

This is not the last time our area of the country will be faced with smoke from wildfires exacerbated by a changing climate. Adapting to this new reality is part of the price we all pay for hanging on to an unsustainable way of life.

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