It’s not officially summer yet in the Northern Hemisphere. But the extremes are already here.
Wildfires are burning across Canada, blanketing parts of the eastern US in choking gray-orange smoke. Puerto Rico is on severe heat alert, as are other parts of the world. Earth’s oceans have warmed at an alarming rate.
Human-caused climate change is a force behind extremes like these. While there’s still no specific research attributing this week’s events to global warming, the science is unequivocal that global warming significantly increases the chances of major wildfires and heatwaves like those affecting much of North America today.
Scientists also warn that a global weather pattern known as El Nio could arrive before the end of the year, potentially setting new heat records.
Taken together, the week’s extremes offer a clear conclusion: the richest continent in the world remains unprepared for the risks of the not too distant future. A sign of this came on Wednesday when the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, said his government could soon create a disaster response agency to make sure we are doing everything we can to predict, protect and act before the arrival of other such events.
Recent fires have also undermined the idea that some places are relatively safe from the worst dangers of climate change because they are not close to the equator or far from the sea. Almost without warning, the smoke from distant fires disrupted daily life.
So much wildfire smoke has flown across the border that schools in Buffalo have canceled outdoor activities. Detroit was engulfed in a toxic haze. Flights have been grounded at airports in the northeast.
Wildfires are no longer just a problem for people who live in forested areas prone to wildfires, said Alexandra Paige Fischer, a professor who studies fire adaptation strategies at the University of Michigan.
In the United States, more people are already living with smoke from wildfires. A 2022 study by Stanford researchers found that the number of people exposed to toxic pollution from wildfires at least one day a year increased 27-fold between 2006 and 2020.
The two countries experiencing these extremes, the United States and Canada, are the major producers of oil and gas which, when burned, produce the greenhouse gases that have significantly warmed the earth’s atmosphere. Average global temperatures today are more than 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than in the pre-industrial era.
Park Williams, a geologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, pointed out that eastern Canada and northern Alberta are expected to get wetter in the coming years, according to climate models. But that wasn’t the case this year. It was an unusually dry year in much of Canada. Then came the heat.
The boreal forests of western Canada offered ready fuel. The trees and grasses of eastern Canada have turned to tinder. With warmer temperatures, those dry years will cause things to dry out and become flammable faster than they otherwise would have, said Dr. William.
By Wednesday, more than 400 wildfires were burning west to east across Canada, more than half of them out of control.
Other parts of the world have felt the sunburn this year. Vietnam broke a heat record in May, with temperatures topping 44 degrees Celsius, or 111 Fahrenheit. China broke heat records at more than 100 weather stations in April. The boreal forests of Siberia are also burning.
As in the North American boreal forests, climate change is making the Siberian fire season longer and more severe. It also increased lightning ignitions, said Brendan Rogers, an expert on boreal wildfires at the Woodwell Climate Research Center. There are different conditions in different years, sure, he said in an email, but the common denominator is hot/hot and dry conditions that prime ecosystems to burn.
Where does all that excess heat in the atmosphere go? Much of it is absorbed by the oceans, which is why ocean temperatures have risen steadily over the past few decades, reaching record highs in 2022.
But something strange happened this spring. Scientists announced with unusual alarm that ocean temperatures were the warmest in 40 years.
Scientists haven’t decided on a reason, though some say the rise could signal the arrival of El Nio. That weather pattern, which typically lasts for several years, brings heat to the surface of the eastern Pacific Ocean. We’ve been living with its cooler cousin, La Nia, for the past few years.
Jeff Berardelli, a meteorologist at WFLA, a television station in Tampa Bay, Florida, warned on Twitter of El Nio’s double punch in a world already warming due to climate change. We should expect an extraordinary year of global extremeshe wrote.
Puerto Rico was already feeling it this week, with record temperatures and high humidity driving the heat index up 125 degrees Fahrenheit (almost 52 degrees Celsius) in some parts of the island.
We are sailing in uncharted waters, Ada Monzn, WAPA meteorologista Puerto Rico television station, he tweeted.
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