It’s not officially summer in the northern hemisphere yet. But the extremes are already here.
Fires are burning across Canada and blanketing parts of the eastern United States in choking, orange-gray smoke. Puerto Rico is under a severe heat alert, as other parts of the world have been recently. Earth’s oceans were warming at an alarming rate.
Man-made climate change is the force behind extremes like these. Although there is no concrete research yet to attribute this week’s events to global warming, science is clear that global warming is greatly increasing the chances of severe wildfires and heat waves like the ones affecting large parts of North America today.
Now comes the global weather pattern known as El Niño, which can raise temperatures and set heat records. Thursday morning, scientists announced his arrival.
Taken together, the week’s extremes offer one clear explanation: the world’s richest continent remains unprepared for the risks of the not-too-distant future. A sign of that came Wednesday when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government may soon create a disaster response agency to “make sure we’re doing everything we can to predict, protect and act against more of these events . arrival.”
The recent fires have also shattered the notion that some places are relatively safe from the worst risks of climate change because they are not close to the equator or far from the sea. Almost without warning, smoke from distant fires upended daily life.
So much smoke from wildfires drifted across the border that in Buffalo schools canceled outdoor activities. Detroit suffocated by toxic haze. Flights were halted at airports in the northeast.
“Fires are no longer just a problem for people who live in forested, fire-prone areas,” said Alexandra Paige Fischer, a professor who studies fire adaptation strategies at the University of Michigan.
There are more people in the United States already lives with smoke from forest fires. A 2022 study by Stanford researchers found that the number of people exposed to toxic pollution from wildfires at least one day a year increased 27-fold between 2006 and 2020.
The two countries experiencing these extremes, the United States and Canada, are major producers of oil and gas, which when burned produce greenhouse gases that have significantly warmed the Earth’s atmosphere. Average global temperatures today are more than 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than in the pre-industrial era.
Park Williams, a geography professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, pointed out that eastern Canada and northern Alberta will actually become wetter in the coming years, according to climate models. But this year it wasn’t like that. It was an unusually dry year in much of Canada. Then came the heat.
The boreal forests of western Canada offered ready-made fuel. Trees and grasses in eastern Canada turned to cinders. “With warmer temperatures, these dry years cause things to dry out and become flammable faster than they would otherwise,” said Dr. Williams.
By Wednesday, more than 400 fires were burning across Canada from west to east, more than half of them out of control.
Other parts of the world also felt the ash this year. Vietnam broke the temperature record in May, with temperatures exceeding 44 degrees Celsius, or 111 degrees Fahrenheit. China broke heat records April at more than 100 meteorological stations. The boreal forests in Siberia also burns.
As in the North American boreal forests, climate change is lengthening and intensifying the Siberian fire season. It also increased lightning strikes, said Brendan Rogers, a boreal forest fire expert at the Woodwell Climate Research Center. Different years have different conditions, sure, he said in an email, but “the common denominator is warm/hot and dry conditions that prepare ecosystems to burn.”
Where does all that excess heat in the atmosphere go? Much of it is absorbed by the oceans, which is why ocean temperatures have been steadily rising over the past few decades, achieving records in 2022.
But something strange happened this spring. With an unusual alarm, scientists announced that ocean temperatures were the highest in the last 40 years.
Scientists have not agreed on the reason, although some have argued that the increase could signal the arrival of El Niño. This weather pattern, which usually lasts for several years, brings warmth to the surface of the eastern Pacific Ocean. For the past few years, we’ve been living with its cooler cousin, La Niña.
Jeff Berardelli, a meteorologist at WFLA, a television station in Tampa, Florida, took to Twitter to warn of a double whammy of El Niño in a world already warming due to climate change. “We should expect a staggering year of global extremes,” he wrote.
Puerto Rico has already felt it this week, with record temperatures and high humidity bringing the heat index up to k 125 degrees Fahrenheit (almost 52 degrees Celsius) in some parts of the island.
“We are sailing in uncharted waters,” Ada Monzón, WAPA meteorologisttweeted a television station in Puerto Rico.