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What's Going On With All These Wildfires?

I’m sure those of you remaining in the UK over the summer have been enjoying the soaring temperatures and glorious tan lines (or burns) that come with them. If you are a sun worshipper like myself you will be watching the UV levels like a hawk to know when basking outside is an absolute must and when you can justify a ‘lunch’ break. However, if you have noticed that the UV numbers seem unnaturally high for the UK, you’d be right —they are! The UK is expected to experience its highest-ever UV levels, up to nine out of 11 in some places (during the summer solstice, seven is usually rare). The Met Office attributes this to a variety of reasons including the angle of the sun, the density of clouds, dust and pollution, and largely the strength and quantity of ozone gas in the stratosphere. So essentially, yes, it is climate change you have to thank for your accelerated tan.

Given the number of international students at St Andrews, many of you could be reading this from somewhere in North America. And you’ll know, then, that the climactic changes in weather and environment have been seen to have far greater impacts across the pond than some lobster-coloured shoulders.

Canada is on track to suffer its most severe wildfires on record, says The Guardian. The country has witnessed 1400% of the usual amount of land incinerated, with more than 400 fires burning across Quebec alone this year. That equates to nearly nine million wildfires across the country. Mohammadreza Alizadeh, researcher at McGill University in Montreal, laid out a few climate-linked explanations for the disasters. Overly dry heather has created tinderbox-like conditions, hot air generally has created more risks of sparks, and more frequent lighting due to the increased temperatures has heightened the chances of fires starting. The results have been devastating for tens of thousands of people forced to flee their homes.

The impacts of these wildfires are being felt across a massive area. The resulting smoke has desecrated the air quality of the northeast of the US to such an extent that Marshall Burke, associate professor of Earth System Science at Stanford University, said that the smoke in New York City this week is the biggest event seen in the last two decades. New York City topped the list of the world’s most polluted cities on the 6th of June, beating New Delhi, with the air quality index climaxing at above 200: “very unhealthy,” according to IQair, as the concentration of smoke exceeds the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) guideline by more than ten times.

The effects of this have been felt across the city, with schools forced to keep their students inside, cancelled flights, as well as feelings of general bemusement and impending armageddon.

Why? Millions of people die each year from air pollution-related health problems; the WHO estimated a heat-breaking 4.2 million premature deaths in 2016. It is easy to understand the inevitable concern of people blinded to their illustrious skyline by a mass of red smog.

I have found myself working at a summer camp in the famously sunny Cape Cod, however, I sat having breakfast in what can only be described as ‘golden hour’ lighting as red-tinted clouds formed in the most unusual weather phenomena I have ever witnessed. My camp, along with countless others across the country, has devised plans to protect their staff and campers as the threat posed by these conditions becomes very real. Just a few hours west of the Cape and ‘golden hour’ is replaced with an apparent smell of burning, extremely low visibility, and red skies imitating ApocalypseNow.

It doesn’t stop there. Air quality alerts were sounded across parts of the Northeast and Midwest of the USA as smoke began to reach Detroit and Chicago, indicating that further effects of pollution may be inevitable.

In all likelihood, the summer will pass and with it, the fires will decrease. However, this could be the first of a new trend of more severe climatic catastrophes. According to Canada’s Natural Resources Agency, by the end of the century, climate change could double the acreage destroyed by wildfires each year, taking a massive toll on human inhabitability, ecosystems, widespread air quality, and timber supply. A United Nations report released last year anticipates the same results by 2090.

As to be expected, Twitter has had a lot to say. Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted “Climate change makes wildfires more frequent and widespread. If we do nothing, this is our new reality, it’s time to act.” This cyber-sentiment was shared by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who tweeted, “We must adapt our food systems, energy grids, infrastructure, healthcare, etc ASAP to prepare for what’s to come and catch up to what is already here.”

Thankfully, leaders have expressed the urgency for action beyond the endless Twitter scroll. These emergencies coincide with the Bonn Climate Change Conference in Germany which is the next stop on the way to the COP28 United Nations Conference. In an emailed statement to the Guardian, Allie Rosenbluth, US Program co-manager at the advocacy group Oil Change International, declared the urgency of the matter: “If US President Biden, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and the UN Climate Conference leaders need a reminder to take bold action on climate, the out of control Canadian wildfires and consequent smoke pollution should be all they need.”

For the moment it seems like there’s nothing to do other than avoid excessive time outside if you are in a highly affected area. Nevertheless, it need not look so bleak. Major cities, businesses, and organisations are making massive leaps towards not just ‘being greener’ but achieving net-zero in the next few years. Additionally, now more than ever the general public is appreciating the ticking time bomb that is climate change. With continued effort and emphasis on the importance of tackling this problem, we can ensure that disasters at the hands of drastic climate change don't become the norm.

Featured image: Matt Palmer via Unsplash.

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