Fires and heatwaves a glimpse into our climate future

Data: NOAA HRRR, GFS;  Note: Smoke is from 2pm Eastern June 29, 2023;  Map: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals
Data: NOAA HRRR, GFS; Note: Smoke is from 2pm Eastern June 29, 2023; Map: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals

The heat wave that is searing much of the United States, coupled with dangerously poor air quality from wildfire smoke, is giving Americans a preview of compound climate disasters that experts fear will become increasingly common as as the planet warms.

Because matter: Extreme heat and dangerous air quality are serious threats to public health, and the heat has already proven deadly.

The big picture: The heat wave in the United States and heat and wildfires across Canada come as multiple global climate indicators, from ocean temperatures to surface air warmth, are setting all-time records.

  • June is likely to be the hottest month in the world on record by a large margin, leading up to July, which tends to be the hottest month on the planet overall.

Zoom in: Since early May, the general weather pattern across North America has been unusual, with hallmarks of warmer weather.

  • A large and powerful heat dome dominated Canada’s atmosphere during that time.
  • A key driver of the wildfires in Canada has been the lowering, drying and heating of the air; hot, dry weather kicked off fire season in early May, even in areas usually covered in snow at that time of year.
  • Greg Carbin, a senior meteorologist at the NWS, said Canada’s weather patterns and the fires it has helped fuel are the most unusual part of North America’s recent conditions.
  • And the stuck or “stuck” weather pattern over Canada is linked to another heat dome fueling extreme heat in Texas and Mexico now spreading into the South and Southwest.

Of note: Such stagnant weather features have characterized many other extreme heat events, such as the 2021 Pacific Northwest heat wave.

Between the lines: There was a stubborn area of ​​low pressure high in the Northeast, which drew smoke from the fires south and east through its counterclockwise air circulation.

  • And over Mexico and Texas, an unusually powerful heat dome is only now weakening, after breaking all-time heat records.
  • For example, San Angelo, Texas broke or tied its all-time high temperature record on five separate occasions from June 19 to June 26, according to NWS meteorologist Victor Murphy. The previous record stood for 120 years.
  • “Climate change makes heat waves in the United States about 5F hotter” than they would be in a pre-industrial world, Michael Wehner, a researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, told Axios.

The intrigue: The scale and scope of the wildfires in Canada are staggering, and they, in turn, are likely to make climate change worse by emitting planet-warming greenhouse gases, in what’s known as a positive feedback loop.

  • This year, however, saw the most acreage burned in any fire season since reliable records began in 1959. That happened before July, typically Canada’s busiest fire month.

Threat Level: Many of Canada’s wildfires are in the boreal forests surrounding the Arctic. Peatlands are also burning, which is concerning, as they are a major carbon sink that becomes a contributor to climate change when burned.

  • Flannigan said some of the fires in these ecosystems can last all winter smoldering in the soil, only to emerge next spring or summer.
  • Such “zombie fires,” as they are called, are a hallmark of the new fire regime in the Far North.
  • Wildfires and climate change are closely linked, Flannigan said, as hotter weather means drier vegetation that is more susceptible to wildfires, as well as more extreme wildfire days.
  • He said his own research over the past three decades may have underestimated the pace of change, given what he’s seeing this season.

The bottom line: “A warmer world means more fire for Canada,” Flannigan said. That means more smoke to come for the US, not just this season, but in the near future as well.

  • “Fire is a multi-faceted problem that will require a multi-pronged approach. There is no silver bullet. There is no technological solution. Drones or artificial intelligence are not going to solve this problem,” said Flannigan.

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