When will the smoke clear?
That’s what so many people in the eastern US are asking after winds swept smoke from wildfires in Canada into major cities including New York and Philadelphia earlier this week. It’s caused air quality to plummet. For part of the week, New York had the worst air pollution of any major city in the world, and officials across the East have urged residents to stay indoors.
But perhaps a more important question is: When will it happen again?
While the path of smoke is influenced by local weather and hard to forecast, it’s clear that wildfires like those in Canada are getting worse as the planet warms. And where there’s fire, there’s smoke. So while scary events like this are temporary, they may also become more common. These fires are not an outlier as much as a harbinger of what’s to come.
I spoke about this with Morgan Crowley, a fire scientist with Canada’s Forest Service, who’s involved in monitoring wildfires. She has advice for East Coasters who are experiencing fire smoke for the first time and is working on a project to help Canada be more prepared during future outbreaks. One hopeful takeaway from our conversation is that firefighters are more prepared than ever.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. During our conversation, Crowley referenced notes from two other Canadian government scientists: Lynn Johnston and Mark de Jong.
The new normal
How surprising is it to see so many fires in eastern Canada?
Fires in eastern Canada are not unexpected. Last year, for example, Newfoundland had a couple of fires that cut off access to some communities, even though it was a relatively quiet fire season everywhere else. There was a big fire in 2009 that impacted Halifax.
But usually, there’s lower fire activity in the region. Part of the problem is that we saw very little snow in the east this year, and then we had a really dry spring, in the east particularly. That’s not surprising — we know these conditions are going to become more common — but it’s really unfortunate.
So is climate change making this the new normal?
We do expect to see more events like this.
Climate change is going to impact Canada more than other regions because it’s closer to the poles. In the west, we expect longer fire seasons. And across Canada in general, we expect fire seasons to get more extreme. The annual area of burned regions is expected to increase — some predictions suggest it could as much as double by 2100.
We’re facing this reality now. The spring burn in Canada is already high, like what people say you might expect in the fall. Many provinces and territories are already in critical fire situations — meaning they might have out-of-control fires close to communities that are prompting evacuations — which makes resource sharing challenging. Parts of Canada are starting the season strapped.
What’s also happening is that across the country, people are moving to forested areas. Fire activity might be shifting with climate change, but communities are also moving into new areas. Our wildland-urban interface is growing.
How do the fires in the east — the ones impacting US cities like New York and Philadelphia — differ from those out west?
What’s different in the east is that fires are mostly in regions where people are living, such as near Halifax in Nova Scotia [whereas in the west they’re often in more rural areas]. So when a fire breaks out, it’s going to affect communities, some of which are really vulnerable. We have concerns in Canada that we’re gonna see more frequent fires in remote Indigenous communities located in fire-prone areas.
Explain it like I’m 5: Why does warming make fires worse?
What is the most basic way to understand the mechanism through which climate change is making these fires worse?
With climate change, it’s hotter. So our forests are drier. That means they’re more stressed out, and there’s more dead fuel. They’re basically a tinderbox when lightning strikes. [Drier vegetation burns more easily.]
There have also been studies showing that with a warming climate, there’s going to be more thunderstorms and lightning storms, so there’s going to be more lightning. Hundreds of fires can be lit with one lightning storm. That just increases our likelihood of fires getting out of control because you can’t respond to every single fire.
Could climate change impact smoke patterns, too? Asking as a New Yorker.
It’s hard to say how winds are changing, but as you can imagine, climate change is shifting everything related to weather. And if there’s more extreme fire behavior, there’s going to be more extreme smoke, and it could come into the States.
How to prepare for more extreme fire seasons
Scientists know more than ever — they understand that climate change will worsen wildfires. Can we use that info to prepare?
Yes, absolutely. Monitoring and forecasts are getting better and becoming more accessible.
Canada, for example, is launching a satellite specifically designed for monitoring fires — not just detecting them but also providing information about their behavior. This is important because existing satellites don’t pass over when fires are at their most extreme, which is late in the afternoon.
This new satellite will show what the fire is doing then and provide that information faster than existing satellites. These data will be available within 30 minutes of the satellites passing over, so they can be used by fire agencies for fire management and decision-making.
Beyond confronting climate change and burning fewer fossil fuels, what can we do to bring down the risk of these fires?
That’s a tricky thing because fires are also a natural part of our ecosystem. We can’t put out every fire and we don’t want to put out every fire. Fires are part of the ecology of boreal forests. But obviously, when it comes to mitigating fires there are different responses, and limiting the impacts on communities is the priority.
As for smoke, it’s going to be a reality of more fires in the future so we should prepare for it, such as by making clean air shelters and better air-quality indices, so people really understand whether it’s safe to go outside.
What is your message for people in US cities who are experiencing wildfire smoke for the first time?
This is our potential future. It’s real. It’s really important that we prepare for our future and find ways to reduce the effects on our vulnerable populations.