Deadly West Coast Wildfires Are a Product of Climate Change

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

While wildfires are a yearly occurrence, these past few weeks have brought more intense and harmful fires than America has seen before. In just the past month, as wildfires blaze through California, heat records in California have been surpassed, more than three million acres of land have been burned (indicating that these are California’s most massive fires on record), and in major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, air pollution has skyrocketed.

The impact of West Coast wildfires has worsened with each year due to the gradual warming of the planet, which is accelerating as greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. California summers are 2.5 degrees warmer than they were in the 1970s and are on track to heat up an additional 4.5 degrees by the end of the century if the world’s current emissions trajectory continues. As a result, according to data released by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), the amount of land burned last week is more than the total burned in all of 2018, and more than double the amount burned in 2017. Additionally, IOP Science research has proven that the number of days with extreme wildfire weather in California has more than doubled since the early 1980s, primarily due to warming temperatures drying out vegetation. “This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Maybe we underestimated the magnitude and speed [at which these events would occur, but] we’ve seen this long freight train barreling down on us for decades, and now the locomotive is on top of us, with no caboose in sight,” Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, told the Los Angeles Times.

A significant contributor to large California fires is that the state has focused on extinguishing blazes for about a century rather than allowing for controlled burns; this has caused dry, dead vegetation to accumulate. As soils become drier, heatwaves intensify. This happens because the atmosphere’s energy is no longer being released in evaporation but builds up in the ground. This lays the foundation for the type of wild and destructive fires that we are now observing.

In California, a prolonged drought over the past decade has killed millions of trees, turning them into fuel for the fires. Mountain regions, typically colder and wetter, have dried out more rapidly in the summer, adding to the potential fuel load. “That’s why, I think, you keep reading quotes from these firefighters who say they are seeing fire behavior unlike anything they’ve seen before. As we go out in the future, in a world with this exponentially growing risk, we’re going to see fires far different than we’ve seen before,” Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, told the Los Angeles Times.

Global warming is also fueling increases in wildfire pollution, a mix of soot particles, and gases that may fuel ozone formation and dramatically worsen smog. These added emissions will only get worse as the severity and frequency of fires increases in the future. The smoke seen so far on the East Coast has remained 10,000 to 20,000 feet up in the atmosphere. So while many people in the West can’t avoid breathing the smoke, easterners remain safe—for the time being.

The massive fires are also throwing off significant amounts of pollutants. Satellite readings taken over the last week show high-altitude concentrations of carbon monoxide that are more than 10 times above normal, according to NASA.

The smoke hasn’t concentrated in one area but instead has traveled across the country. Plumes from deadly and record-breaking fires burning up and down the West Coast are being caught in the atmospheric jet stream and carried across the United States.

There is enough smoke to partially shroud the sun in parts of the East Coast, forecasters said.

Six of the 20 largest fires on record in California all occurred this year. In Oregon, the fires burned almost twice the amount of average annual tree losses in a week.

“The heat is expected to get worse with time. Climate models estimate that average state temperatures will climb three degrees Fahrenheit by 2050 unless the world makes sharp cuts in greenhouse gas emissions,” Michael Wehner, a senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, told Scientific American.

Through Teen Lenses: Do you have any opinions on the current wildfire situation on the West Coast? How well do you think the problem is being dealt with?

“The wildfires occurring in the West Coast is a dangerous situation and places a huge amount of wildlife and nature in grave danger. It also causes the destruction of houses and manmade structures, and should be dealt with quickly and safely.” Dhruv Addanki, 14, Sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Chantilly, VA
“Personally, I believe that the current situation in relation to the California wildfires is not being dealt with in a serious matter. Not only are the fires continuing to spread, but I have found that people are not bringing enough awareness to this issue. Millions of people across the state of California and Washington are being affected by the continuous growth of the fires and smoke flying across the western coast. Government officials have the power and resources to assist those in need, but we aren’t seeing what they are doing to help.” Anjana Ganji, 14, Sophomore at Chantilly High School, Chantilly, VA
“I don’t really know much about how it’s being dealt with. I know it’s affecting my family that lives there, but I don’t know anything about how it’s being handled in general or actions that the government is taking. I just know that the fires are causing a lot of pollution.” Maanasa Schwartzkopf, 15, Sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Fairfax, VA