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Orange Skies? Awful Smells? It’s not the Apocalypse, but Climate Change

Navily Zhen



n early June, nearly 400 fires sparked in Canada with smoke traveling from the Midwest to the East Coast and even across the Atlantic Ocean to Portugal, France, and Ireland. While wildfire season runs from May to October, the devastating impacts from the early months are extremely rare. As Air Quality Indexes become dangerously high and American cities are engulfed by orange smoke, the recent Canadian wildfires serve as a reminder of the dangerous consequences of climate change and the risk imposed on particularly vulnerable communities.

Due to climate change, wildfires are becoming more frequent and intense. Canada is mostly covered by boreal forests, a fire-dependent ecosystem, meaning that fires help maintain biodiversity. However, anthropogenic climate change has led to hotter temperatures and drier conditions, making wildfires burn longer and spread into larger areas. Recently, we have seen the effects of climate change on the Canadian prairies of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, where fires are raging due to prolonged drought. Burning forests also emit carbon back into the atmosphere. Boreal forests release 10-20 times more carbon when burned by wildfires than other ecosystems. This means that the emissions from wildfires contribute to increasing temperatures, creating even more intense wildfires.

As wildfires engage in this feedback loop of creating emissions that lead to further wildfires, governments need to participate to prevent the impacts of hazardous wildfires on wildlife and human populations. As of July 1st, 262 fires are still out of control out of 522 fires currently burning. One of the reasons is the lack of resources necessary to put out these fires. The Canadian government is not spending money on equipping firefighters and departments to prepare for potential wildfires, but spending more money on recovery and response after the event occurs.

There needs to be increased policies and regulations to prevent wildfires from intensifying, especially as it creates more risk for more vulnerable groups such as children, the elderly, those who are pregnant, those with existing health conditions, and generally, low-income communities of color. Wildfire smoke contains tiny pollutants that can reach the lungs and bloodstream when inhaled, causing difficulty breathing, eye and throat irritation, and long-term health issues like lung cancer. In Chicago, for example, the Air Quality Index reached 209, considered “very unhealthy” for everyone. In early June, there were readings above 400 on the East Coast, which is beyond the “hazardous” label for indexes above 300.

News outlets and cities’ Departments of Public Health began releasing safety procedures, including staying indoors, avoiding areas with high air pollution, and closing windows and doors. For low-income communities, workers in high-exposure occupations, and especially people experiencing homelessness, these recommended safety measures may not even be possible. Research shows that Black, Latinx, and Native American communities may experience a 50% greater risk of smoke exposure based on systemic and structural inequities among all smoke-exposed communities. Those who must work in high-exposure conditions as they have no other option are also at risk. The health burden of air pollution is rising with the increasing severity and frequency of fires. Another study found that exposure to smoke during a severe wildfire event led to a 70% increase in out-of-hospital cardiac arrests, with a larger risk among low socioeconomic groups.

Fires are important in maintaining many ecosystems and functions on Earth, including restoring soil nutrients and removing overgrown foliage and decaying matter. However, due to increasing temperatures and drier conditions due to anthropogenic climate change, there needs to be an integration of public health, government, and policy to prepare communities for the increased frequency and intensity of wildfires. Although yellow, black, and smoky skies may have appeared in the 1700s and 1800s, orange skies today show the need for immediate action to mitigate climate change to prevent intensified natural and manmade disturbances.


Citations

  1. Bilefsky, D. (2023, June 28). What to Know About Canadian Wildfires and U.S. Air Quality. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/06/28/world/canada/canada-wildfires-smoke-us-air-quality.html

  2. D’Evelyn, S. M., Jung, J., Alvarado, E., Baumgartner, J., Caligiuri, P., Hagmann, R. K., Henderson, S. B., Hessburg, P. F., Hopkins, S., Kasner, E. J., Krawchuk, M. A., Krenz, J. E., Lydersen, J. M., Marlier, M. E., Masuda, Y. J., Metlen, K., Mittelstaedt, G., Prichard, S. J., Schollaert, C. L., … Spector, J. T. (2022). Wildfire, Smoke Exposure, Human Health, and Environmental Justice Need to be Integrated into Forest Restoration and Management. Current Environmental Health Reports, 9(3), 366–385. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40572-022-00355-7

  3. Elassar, A. (2023, July 1). Smoke will keep pouring into the US as long as fires are burning in Canada. Here’s why they aren’t being put out. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2023/07/01/us/canada-wildfire-smoke-us-air-quality/index.html

  4. Health Department Recommends Residents Take Precautions Due to Wildfire Smoke | Department of Public Health. (2023, July 14). City of Philadelphia. https://www.phila.gov/2023-06-06-health-department-recommends-residents-take-precautions-due-to-wildfire-smoke/

  5. Corte, K. (2023, June 27). How did the Canadian wildfires start? A look at what caused the fires that are sending smoke across the U.S. CBS News. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/how-did-wildfires-in-canada-start-spread-to-europe-midwest/

  6. Ajasa, A. & Coletta, A. (2023, June 7). How large are the Canadian wildfires, and who is suffering the smoke? Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2023/06/07/canada-wildfires-weather-air-quality/

  7. Zerkel, E. (2023, July 14). A new outbreak of Canadian wildfires is sending a plume of unhealthy smoke into the US yet again. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2023/07/14/us/canada-wildfire-smoke-us-air-quality/index.html


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