According to new research, climate change is not just a result of the Western wildfires of recent years, but also a growing cause of the issue.
According to a study published online Monday in the journal Environmental Pollution, the greenhouse gas emissions generated by California’s wildfires in 2020 were equal to or exceeded the amount that the state had reduced between 2003 and 2019. The record amount of acres burnt in California’s wildfires in 2020 effectively nullified the state’s 16 years of climate change mitigation efforts, which included the transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy sources.
Carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas, is released into the atmosphere when wood is burned. Heat waves and droughts, both of which increase the likelihood of wildfires, have become increasingly often in California and other Western states as average temperatures have risen. Water officials in certain sections of California have instituted water consumption limitations due to the 22-year megadrought that is now parching the West. Heat waves in the state are becoming hotter and hotter.
In turn, this has led to an increase in the frequency of wildfires. Since the year 2000, 18 of the 20 biggest wildfires in California’s history have taken place. Five of the eight biggest are expected in 2020. More than a million acres were destroyed by the August Complex Fire in 2020, making it the largest fire in state history.
In 2020, California was hit by more than 9,000 wildfires, which sent smoke as far as the East Coast. The fires burnt about 4.3 million acres, caused 30 deaths, and caused over $19 billion in damages.
Now that we know how much wood was burned, we also know how much pollution was produced; wildfires were the second-largest cause of pollution in California, behind traffic.
A UCLA professor of environmental health sciences and the study’s lead author, Michael Jerrett, praised the state’s policymakers and citizens in a statement released with the report. “From 2003 to 2019, California’s GHG emissions declined by 65 million metric tons of pollutants, a 13 percent drop that was largely driven by reductions from the electric power generation sector,” Jerrett said. Smoke from one year of unprecedented wildfires threatens to obliterate the good effects of almost two decades’ worth of effort.
It’s important to note that wildfires contribute to a variety of environmental degradation, not only carbon emissions. Inhaling the smoky, polluted air may be taxing on the respiratory system and even hazardous to one’s health.
According to a study published in June by the Air Quality Life Index, wildfire smoke in 2020 was so awful that it temporarily negated the improvements in air quality brought about by decades of federal and state legislation in California. Dangerously high levels of particulate matter were present over the whole state, and 29 of the 30 counties in the United States with the worst particle pollution that year were located in California. Since satellite measurements started in 1998, half of the state’s counties have had the worst air pollution.
Emphysema sufferer Donelda Moberg of the San Joaquin Valley, California, told the Los Angeles Times earlier this year that she stayed inside as much as possible for weeks at a time in 2020 due to the wildfire smoke.
“The sky was a clay tone, and it rendered the sun an odd tint – it didn’t appear natural,” Moberg said to the newspaper. As the old saying goes, “If the sun was shining, it was safe to walk outside.”
According to a study conducted by Stanford University researchers in 2020, between 1,200 and 3,000 Americans 65 and older died prematurely as a result of the flames.