Over the decades, I’ve taken an interest in scientific studies that try to predict the regions of the United States that will suffer the most and (relatively) the least due to the climate emergency. I’ve found solace in the fact that Oregon won’t suffer chronic and eventually fatal flooding, as will much of the inhabited East Coast from New York City to Miami. We don’t have tundra that will be permanently defrosted or Native villages falling into the rising sea, as Alaska does. Our summer temperatures won’t be anywhere near as unbearable as in Arizona and Texas. Nor will we suffer the unprecedented deluges, alternated with unprecedented droughts, of the Midwest.
But my slight solace began to evaporate when I figured out that Oregon’s relatively light climatic catastrophe means that hordes of climate refugee Americans will be abandoning places worse off and coming here. The only silver lining I see to the pending hordes of new Oregonians is that while the Willamette and Rogue Valleys will be entirely lost to urbanization, a more urbanized electorate could mean more protected areas in the least-populated parts of the state.
Now I’ve come to realize that the climate catastrophe will not go easy on Oregon. The atmosphere’s revenge will not come mostly in the form of unprecedented floods, torrents, droughts, heat waves, and/or cold snaps. It will come in the form of seasonally debilitating horrible air quality caused by increased combustion of vegetation due to warming temperatures (Figure 1). Increasingly superimposed over nature’s four seasons here in the Northwest is an unnatural fire season.
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality notes, “Wildfires have been increasing across the Western United States in the last decade and are expected to become more frequent, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Smoke from fires is causing Air Quality Index values that are ‘unhealthy for sensitive groups’ or worse across Oregon.” And according to Loretta Mickley, a senior climate research fellow at Harvard, “Residents of Northern California, western Oregon, Washington state and the Northern Rockies are projected to suffer the worst increases in smoke exposure.”
Given my great love of clean air, one might think that I would embrace the “solution” being most suggested at the moment: log our way out of it. However, that simply will not work (see below)—and I also love forests. There are things we can do (see further below) to protect ourselves from wildfire (and other) pollution that are rational, prudent, and most likely to be effective.
The term smoke waves was coined by scientists in a 2016 scientific journal article. They defined a smoke wave as “≥2 [two or more] consecutive days with high wildfire-specific PM2.5 [particulate matter 2.5 microns or larger],” describing wildfire-caused episodes of high air pollution. The abstract says: “Under future climate change, we estimate that more than 82 million individuals will experience a 57% and 31% increase in the frequency and intensity, respectively, of Smoke Waves. Northern California, Western Oregon and the Great Plains are likely to suffer the highest exposure to wildfire smoke in the future.”
Oregon’s curse is a geography of valleys surrounded by mountains that favors atmospheric inversions and a people that favor living in such inversion-prone airscapes. Inversions are when a layer of warmer air traps a layer of colder air below it. In the winter, this means that particulate and other pollution from smokestacks, tailpipes, and chimneys stays around. In the summer, this means that such pollution from wildfires—often from afar—comes around and stays around. Inversions are getting worse due to the changing climate. Of the sixty “smaller” cities around the world listed by Wikipedia as having serious inversion problems, sixteen (more than one-quarter) are in Oregon, in the valleys of the Willamette, Umpqua, and Rogue.
Smoke waves are bad. According to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality:
Wildfire smoke emits a wide variety of pollutants measured as PM2.5 and PM10, black carbon, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and metals. Of these pollutants, PM2.5 may represent the greatest health concern since it can be inhaled deeply into the lungs and a fraction may even reach the bloodstream. Volatile organic compounds can cause early symptoms such as watery eyes, respiratory tract irritation and headaches. Higher ozone (smog) can also be formed from an increase in the precursor pollutants, nitrogen dioxide and volatile organic compounds.
The Myth of Logging Our Way to Clean Air
The Forest Service says logging is necessary to reduce the intensity and frequency of wildfire in the West. Not only are they wrong in general, they also don’t know which stands to “treat” in particular because they don’t know where the fires are going to be. To be fair, no one can predict which stands are going to burn when. But the arguments made to support the myth of logging our way to clean air don’t stand up to scrutiny.
Smoke comes from forest fires, right? Not. Most summer smoke comes from wildfires. Only about two-fifths of the area burned in the American West from 2005 to 2014 was forested; the rest was chaparral, sagebrush, and—increasingly—tundra (Figure 2).
Well, there’s more vegetation in a forest than a sagebrush steppe, so there’s more smoke, right? Actually, the vast majority of forest carbon bound up in vegetation in a forest remains after a fire. While needles and small branches may fully combust, larger branches and small boles not so much, and large boles—where most aboveground forest carbon resides—hardly combust at all. (See “Carbon Dynamics of Mixed and High-Severity Wildfires” by Stephen Mitchell in The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix, ed. DellaSala and Hanson.)
Then, at least thinning forests means we’ll have fewer forest fires, right? Actually, less than 1 percent of areas in national forests that have undergone “fuel treatment” encounter an actual forest fire (Figure 2).
If the Forest Service and BLM budgets for “fuel treatments” were to double, the encounter rate would increase from 1 percent to 2 percent. Such efforts would be twice as likely to make a difference, but still extremely unlikely to do so. If their budgets were doubled again? Four percent. What are the chances of Congress increasing those budgets fourfold? As great as the chance that climate change will turn out to be caused by something other than humans. If there were a fourfold increase in federal logging, board feet taken out would approach levels not seen since the era of old-growth-forest liquidation.
Ironically, not only are “fuel treatments” not treating areas that will burn, they often have the effect of increasing fuels and therefore fire risk because opening up a stand lets flammable vegetation increase on the forest floor. Even federal forest agencies admit in their planning documents that logging can increase fire hazard in a stand in the short to medium term. As noted by George Sexton, conservation director for KS Wild, based in Ashland, Oregon:
· For all Forest Service and BLM projects that generate “activity slash,” the agencies generally acknowledge an increase in fire hazard until the slash is treated, which in some cases takes up to three years.
· For general logging/thinning projects, the BLM occasionally acknowledges a five-to-twenty-year increase in fire hazard (depending on the “treatment”).
· For “regeneration” (clear-cutting followed by plantation establishment) projects, the BLM usually projects a “several decade” increase in fire hazard until the plantation undergoes its first post-establishment thinning treatment.
Managing Our Way to Better Overall Air Quality
It’s not going to be easy (addressing existential threats never is), but there are rational and prudent steps we can take, and they are reasonable considering the alternative.
Set more prescribed fires. A century and a half of fire suppression has caused serious ecological problems that are best treated by the careful reintroduction of fire into fire-dependent ecosystems. A fire is either the continuation of or the rebirth of a forest. A recent study found that smoke pollution from prescribed fires is less harmful to small children (the most vulnerable human cohort) than smoke from wildfires. Prescribed fire is the best way to reacquaint forests with fire—and it causes less air pollution.
Let wildfires burn. Most large fires are extinguished not by the actions of humans but by weather. Wildfires are as ecologically desirable and necessary as they are inevitable and unbeatable. Take the money instead to make buildings resistant to fire and humans less vulnerable to wildfire smoke. Spending money that way can actually make a difference.
Prevent preventable pollution. “It’s really incredible how much the U.S. has managed to clean up the air from other [pollution] sources like power plants and industry and cars,” Harvard’s Mickley said. “Climate change is throwing a new variable into the mix and increasing smoke, and that will work against our other efforts to clear the air through regulations. This is kind of an unexpected source of pollution and health hazard.” This means society has to double down to prevent air pollution that actually can be prevented. Despite what Smokey Bear says, forest fires cannot be prevented.
Most preventable particulate pollution comes from industrial smokestacks, automobile tailpipes, farm fields, and residential chimneys. Factories must be reconfigured to prevent emissions or to capture all their emissions. Transportation must be electrified; we need to do it anyway to decarbonize the economy and stop polluting the atmosphere. Electricity production needs to be fossil fuel-free. Farm practices must be improved to reduce dust. Burning wood for residential heat must end. Even the least polluting woodstoves pollute a lot and kill people. Having cleaner air most of the year can somewhat mitigate dirtier air during the fire season.
Shelter in place, shelter near place, or shelter elsewhere. Evacuating to avoid wildfire smoke is no different from evacuating to avoid hurricanes or floods. Society routinely provides shelters for humans (and their pets!) who evacuate during hurricanes and floods, and it could also help people shelter from smoke. Seattle buildings and Ashland schools are being retrofitted with smoke scrubbers. Get used to it.
When I built my state-of-the-art, super-insulated, passive- and active-solar, net-zero-energy, toxics-free, and earth-, people-, and pet-friendly habitat in Ashland a couple of decades back, I failed to anticipate the coming smoke waves. My designer lobbied hard for me to install air conditioning for those few hot nights each year. I demurred, relying on engineering work that showed the super-insulated building would cool at night when the windows were open and stay cool enough during the day. I didn’t anticipate not being able to open those windows nocturnallyduring smoke waves. A super-efficient mini-split heat pump may be in my future, along with an air filtration system. At least I have the excess solar electrons already for their operation.
When it gets very hot or very cold where people live, those with means leave for a while. Snowbirds head south in winter and sunbirds head north in summer. Smokebirds will soon enter the lexicon (Figure 3).
Meeting and Beating the Existential Threat
In my darker moments, I lament that we shall fail to save the earth—and therefore ourselves—because our accountants say it would be financially unprofitable, our economists say it would be economically inefficient, and our politicians say it would be politically unacceptable. I can now add another lament: because our citizenry says it cannot be bothered.
The actions suggested above to manage our way to cleaner air face a heavy lift in the face of typical and traditional political inertia as well as climate-adaptation denial by many people who are as far away from climate-change denial as one could be. While they accept climate change as human-caused, they aren’t willing to accept the radical (“relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching or thorough”) steps necessary to both mitigate (reduce our contributions to) and adapt to (cope with) climate disruption.
The best historical analog I can come up with for the climate emergency is the existential threat that was World War II. The United States was somewhat gearing up for war but was hoping against hope that we could stay out of it. We were even semi-fighting the war by doing some very unneutral things that favored the British over the Germans. However, after that day that lives in infamy, America went all in. There was nothing more important to the United States of America than defeating Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Labor, capital, industry, commerce, and all other American institutions united, rose up, and won the war. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t convenient, and it was very costly—but it defeated an existential threat, after all.
While both WWII and the climate emergency were foreseeable, it is human nature to highly discount future costs in favor of present benefits. My analogy breaks down somewhat because WWII was an acute existential threat, while the climate emergency is a chronic existential threat. Yet, I keep the WWII analogy because I know of none better. Nazism was changing our world as we had known and loved it, and so is climate change. Nazism needed to be stopped, and so does climate change.
We must simultaneously rapidly decarbonize our economy and occasionally don N95 masks. When one considers the total possible disruption that could be caused by the climate crisis, the probable disruption that will be caused by mitigating and adapting to climate change begins to appear eminently doable.