The West will see worsening air pollution, fires and floods
SAN FRANCISCO — The West, once a beacon of all that was new and hopeful in America, could become an example of the bleak, apocalyptic future the nation faces because of climate change.
The past five years have already been trying.
Whole neighborhoods burned down to the foundations. Children are kept indoors because the air outside is too dangerous to play. Deadly mudslides of burnt debris destroying cities. Blood red skies so dark at noon, the streetlights come on and the postmen wear headlamps to deliver the mail.
And it will get worse unless dramatic action is taken, predict two studies published this week.
The former predicts growing wildfires could lead to dangerous levels of air quality increase during the fire season by more than 50% over the next 30 years in the Pacific Northwest and parts of northern California.
A second watch how the predicted increase in wildfires and intense rains could lead to more devastating effects flash floods and mudslides across much of the West.
“These studies reinforce the likelihood of a brutal future for the West,” said Jonathan Overpeck, a climatologist and dean of the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability.
“Even climatologists are scared,” he said. If climate change is not curbed, a ‘dystopian’ landscape could result.
Deadly Mudslides: More Americans at risk as heavy rain threatens scorched land
Each study, based on ever more precise climate modeling, follows previous research showing the recent red skies, burning forests and neighborhoods, catastrophic flooding and mudslides could be the new normal unless carbon emissions are stopped soon.
“These articles echo an overwhelming trend,” said Rebecca Miller, who studies the impact of fire on the West at the University of Southern California. “The fires and their impacts are getting worse and are expected to get worse, becoming a disaster year after year.”
What this means for the West, home to 79 million people, is something of a throwback to the past.
“When you moved to the West a century ago, it was an inhospitable place. There was an underlying danger,” said Bruce Cain, director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University. . “We’re coming back to it.”
The dire consequences, however, may be an incentive for Americans to take meaningful climate action.
“It’s a kick in the pants to get things done,” Cain said.
bad air days
Rising levels of hazardous particles in the air from smoke from wildfires pose a growing threat not just in the American West but across the country, the article published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In the past five years alone, the West has experienced a series of historically significant and destructive fires that have scorched millions of acres, destroyed thousands of homes and killed hundreds of people. The annual area burned by forest fires in the region has increased tenfold over the past half-century.
Smoke from those fires turned skies red and was so pervasive that Pacific Coast cities from Los Angeles to Seattle kept children indoors during recess and canceled sporting events. Residents have been advised not to go out and to tightly close windows and doors. Sales of air filters have exploded.
‘It could happen tomorrow’: Experts know disaster upon disaster is looming on the West Coast
At the end of the century, these types of dangerous and polluting fires could occur every three to five years in the Pacific Northwest and parts of northern California, according to the study by scientists from Princeton University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“These unhealthy levels of particulate pollution that have occurred in recent large fires could become the new normal at the end of the 21st century,” said Yuanyu Xie, a researcher in atmospheric and oceanic sciences at Princeton and one of the authors. of the item.
The scientists modeled several scenarios. In what is known as the “middle of the road” climate change scenario, in which carbon emissions do not begin to decline until mid-century and do not reach net zero until 2100, models show that smoke pollution increases from 100% to 150%.
In the “business as usual” scenario, in which society does not make concerted efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, the smoke increases by 130% to 260%.
The danger extends across the United States. Smoke from wildfires can travel hundreds or even thousands of miles. In July, smoke from wildfires in the West triggered air quality alerts and brought smoky skies and red-orange haze to New York, Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Boston.
“It’s not just a threat to the health of people who live in western states. We are seeing impacts hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away,” said American Lung Association Senior Vice President for Public Policy Paul Billings.
Smoke particles can penetrate deep into the lungs, creating and exacerbating multiple health problems.
“It can cause asthma attacks, strokes, heart attacks and increased cardiovascular problems,” Billings said. There is also evidence that smoking can impact pregnancy and childbirth outcomes.
Showers, floods and mudslides
A second paper, published Friday in the journal Science Advances, modeled two separate trends in the West — increasing “fire weather” and increasing extreme rainfall — which together create problems.
In the past, extreme rainfall was unlikely to follow a major wildfire, but the one-two punch is becoming more common and can be a dangerous combination.
Westerners have long lived with what is known as fire weather, periods of exceptional heat, drought and wind that increase the danger of fires. The National Weather Service even produces weather forecasts for fires. The researchers’ models show that these extreme events will increase in the coming decades.
Extreme rain: How a summer of extreme weather reveals a startling change in the way rain falls in America.
At the same time, the frequency and intensity of extreme rain events are also expected to increase across much of the western United States, according to the study. By the middle of the century, average heavy rains are expected to increase by more than 30%.
“It’s like rolling dice, you have your fire dice set and your rain dice set. Sometimes there is fire and rain in the same year,” said Samantha Stevenson, a climate modeler at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who co-authored the paper.
This poses an additional risk to anyone living downstream from the charred areas. Fires destroy the vegetation that holds soils in place and can sometimes harden the soil, decreasing its ability to absorb water. Both contribute to the possibility of catastrophic flash floods and what scientists call debris flows.
“It’s a mix of rocks, soil, vegetation and water that’s descending at a speed you can’t exceed,” said Matthew Thomas, research hydrologist at the US Geological Survey. “A flood can inundate a house, but a debris flow can knock it off its foundation.”
Models run by scientists predict that in the Pacific Northwest, more than 90% of fire weather days will be followed within six months by extreme rainfall events. Over five years, nearly every fire weather will be followed by at least one extreme rain event – and it can take that long for scorched land to recover.
The results were similar, although less extreme for California and Colorado.
The results surprised Danielle Touma, an environmental engineering researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who co-authored the paper.
“Seeing the numbers on your screen is quite shocking,” she said.
The phenomenon is already visible.
A USA TODAY investigation last year found that between 2018 and 2021, fast-moving debris flows damaged and destroyed hundreds of homes, closed major transportation routes in at least three states, and caused more than 550 million property damage dollars. Nearly 170 people have been injured and 28 people have died since 2018.
Last year, flash flooding in Colorado’s Poudre Canyon killed at least three people. It occurred in the scorch scar left by the Cameron Peak Fire of 2020, the largest recorded fire in Colorado history.
In 2018, the Montecito mudslide killed 23 people near Santa Barbara, and claims for losses totaled $421 million. It came just a month after the Thomas Fire, one of the largest in state history, which killed two people, destroyed at least 1,000 structures and cost $1.8 billion in damage. materials.
The rate at which wildfires have escalated across much of America has exceeded predictions by the scientific community, Overpeck said.
“In fact, theory and models underestimated how much these impacts would add up,” he said. “Mother Nature makes this perfectly clear.”
Contact Elizabeth Weise at [email protected]