Written by Abigail Curtis

Smoky days remind us that climate change affects all of us.

The weekend of July 23rd was filled with a distinctive cloudy film that lay siege to streets all over New England. This smog was the side effect of the ongoing wildfire season ravaging Canada and the Northwestern United States, with fires such as Dixie and budding events in Montana and Idaho, wiping out tens of thousands of acres of land per day. These fires characterize another landmark wildfire season for the West Coast, with fires this June burning four times more acreage than fires had in June 2020 (already one of the most horrific wildfire seasons in decades).

Although we are not faced with the direct impacts of wildfires in New England, we are forced to reckon with the indirect effects of reduced air quality. Last week, Boston’s Air Quality Index (AQI) reached an alarming 147 as the wildfire smoke from the west reached the region. This came with a flurry of warnings from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, along with warnings in states such as New Hampshire, Maine, New York, and Vermont. Similarly, barely three days earlier, New Englanders experienced a day where the sun had been shielded by gusts of smoke from the Bootleg fire.

The smog we saw in late July in Massachusetts is not a new occurrence, nor will the smog be the last of its kind. Although wildfire frequency hasn’t changed drastically from the 1980s, the ferocity of wildfires has consistently increased, climbing from 1.5 million acres burned in 1983 to just over 10 million acres during 2020. Additionally, the length of wildfire season in the west has increased, pushing the start of the season into early spring, due to the increased temperature and dryness of the western coast (caused by climate change). The combination of prolonged drought and increased global temperature lay the groundwork for a deadly wildfire season. 

Wildfires’ effect on national and global air quality is well understood; researchers have discovered that wildfires release large amounts of black carbon, carbon dioxide, ozone precursors, and volatile organic material into the air as they ravage on the landscape. However, the long-term effects of these massive wildfires on air quality, along with the emissions coming from different source materials other than wood are still being researched, leaving the full extent of the danger that wildfires put us in as unknown. The smoke and increase in air pollutant concentration are associated with more lung disease, asthma, and other chronic respiratory diseases. In an interview with BU’s The Brink, Earth scientist Mark Friedl, explains that the effects of these fires on Northeastern states are “pretty severe from a public health perspective.”

So, why should New Englanders care about one or two smoky weekends per year? Because the smoke is a reminder that the time we have to save our climate is running out, and the irreversible effects of our impact on the climate have started to take effect. During the weekend of July 23rd, New England had the second poorest air quality nationwide, only topped by California. Climate scientists identify climate change as the cause of these events, and don’t see a near end to this escalating problem. Wildfire season is only predicted to grow in frequency and ferocity over the next decade. Along with these fires comes worsened air quality and greater levels of smog and air pollutants nationally, launching us further into an earth-sized hole from which we cannot dig ourselves out. The pervasiveness of these events, such as wildfires, and their ability to affect the entire country, signals a shift from the naturally occurring fires that are typical of forests to frighteningly large and destructive fires of unnatural, industrial origin.

These fierce and dangerous wildfires are a product of the decades-long climb of temperatures and droughts; this is not a random, isolated event, rather a calculated outcome from decades of neglect and irresponsibility in our global handling of the climate crisis. Although wealthier nations and groups are more responsible for the emissions resulting in climate change, and corporations often dump pollutants into the water and air with little regard for ecosystems, climate, or environmental health, people of color and people in low-income communities are facing the brunt of a crisis that they had a disproportionately small part in making. 

As we grapple with the effects of the escalating climate situation, we can only hope that these smog-filled weekends are taken as a warning sign by local, state, and federal governments for the smoky days to come. We have our work laid out in front of us to protect our planet and cultivate a world prioritizing environmental sustainability over profit.

To view the AQI map from the weekend of 7/23-7/25, click here. To view the national AQI data, click here.

Categories: Uncategorized


Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder