Saturday, September 09, 2017

In a Summer of Wildfires and Hurricanes, My Son Asks, "Why is Everything Going Wrong?"

[The Intercept] We hear about the record-setting amounts of water that Hurricane Harvey dumped on Houston and other Gulf cities and towns, mixing with petrochemicals to pollute and poison on an unfathomable scale. We hear too about the epic floods that have displaced hundreds of thousands of people from Bangladesh to Nigeria (though we don’t hear enough). And we are witnessing, yet again, the fearsome force of water and wind as Hurricane Irma — one of the most powerful storms ever recorded — leaves devastation behind in the Caribbean, with Florida now in its sights.
Yet for large parts of North America, Europe, and Africa, this summer has not been about water at all. In fact it has been about its absence; it’s been about land so dry and heat so oppressive that forested mountains exploded into smoke like volcanoes. It’s been about fires fierce enough to jump the Columbia River; fast enough to light up the outskirts of Los Angeles like an invading army; and pervasive enough to threaten natural treasures, like the tallest and most ancient sequoia trees and Glacier National Park.
For millions of people from California to Greenland, Oregon to Portugal, British Columbia to Montana, Siberia to South Africa, the summer of 2017 has been the summer of fire. And more than anything else, it’s been the summer of ubiquitous, inescapable smoke.
For years, climate scientists have warned us that a warming world is an extreme world, in which humanity is buffeted by both brutalizing excesses and stifling absences of the core elements that have kept fragile life in equilibrium for millennia. At the end of the summer of 2017 — with major cities submerged in water and others licked by flames — we are currently living through Exhibit A of this extreme world, one in which natural extremes come head-to-head with social, racial, and economic ones.
I checked the forecast before coming to British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast, a ragged strip of coastline marked by dark evergreen forests that butt up against rocky cliffs and beaches strewn with driftwood, the charming flotsam from decades of sloppy logging operations. Reachable only by ferry or floatplane, this is the part of the world where my parents live, where my son was born, and where my grandparents died. Though it still feels like home, we now only get here for a few weeks a year.
The government of Canada weather site predicted that the next week would be glorious: an uninterrupted block of sun, clear skies, and higher than average temperatures. I pictured hot afternoons paddling in the Pacific and still, starry nights.
But when we arrive in early August, a murky blanket of white has engulfed the coast and the temperature is cool enough for a sweater. Forecasts are often wrong, but this is more complicated. Somewhere up there, above the muck, the sky is clear of clouds. The sun is particularly hot. Yet intervening in those truths is a factor the forecasters did not account for: huge quantities of smoke, blown up to 400 miles from the province’s interior, where about 130 wildfires are burning out of control. 
Enough smoke has descended to turn the sky from periwinkle blue to this low, unbroken white. Enough smoke to reflect a good portion of the sun’s heat back into space, artificially pushing temperatures down. Enough smoke to transform the sun itself into an angry pinpoint of red fire surrounded by a strange halo, unable to burn through the relentless haze. Enough smoke to blot out the stars. Enough smoke to absorb any possible sunsets. At the end of the day, the red ball abruptly disappears, only to be replaced by a strange burnt-orange moon. Read More