The dense smoke that has led to air quality alerts across the U.S. Northeast the past week provides a view of a climate-changed future where Quebec’s wildfires burn twice as much land and the wind carries the toxic effects south, scientists say. But there are steps we can take to mitigate the harm.
In research published in 2015, Loretta Mickley, a wildfire expert and senior research fellow at the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, worked with colleagues to project the spread of Canadian wildfires in a warming world. They found that forest burn in Quebec — directly north of New York and New England — will likely double by 2050.
That’s troubling, Mickley said, because what is so unusual about the current Quebec fire season is not the number of fires — some 400 were burning when the densest smoke headed south — but the area of forest. Ten times the acreage has burned across Canada compared with the same time a year ago, Mickley said. That’s 11 times the 10-year average.
“I am surprised,” Mickley said of recent scenes from New York and other cities, “but this is within my expectations of what fires will be like in a warming climate.”
The mechanism for fire danger is straightforward, with higher temperatures drying out forests until a spark sets them ablaze. This year, eastern Canada saw an early season heat wave that increased wildfire fuel. Once the forests were burning, all it took was the right weather pattern to push the smoke south.
“There have been times in the past where fire activity was more or less frequent, depending on hemispheric climate at that time, but we are pushing the envelope on the past and moving into a new regime,” Mickley said.