On an unnaturally hot late June day in the Northeast, my eight-year-old grandson was walking back to a broiling car to continue a long trip. It was in the mid-nineties and he and his three-year-old sister were complaining about how miserable they were when, out of nowhere, he said, "This is why climate change is important!"
Startled, his mother agreed, and then he suddenly added, "And imagine what it's going to be like when I'm 50 years old!"
Imagine indeed! When it comes to climate change, my grandchildren have long been on my mind. I've certainly worried about the nightmarish world they might inherit, if we my generation and the ones just below mine don't do what's needed to stop this planet from becoming a hothouse of the first order. And yes, since I do my best to follow the news on the subject, I'm aware that, from a melting Greenland to an overheating Middle East, this planet is indeed changing more or less before my eyes.
But here's what I didn't imagine: that, at my own advanced age (I'm almost 77), I would live to see something of the genuine blast-furnace effect of that phenomenon. Now, it seems, I couldn't have been more wrong. Not just my children and grandchildren, but I am likely to be living through climate change in a big-time way. After all, this is happening remarkably fast, as the recent soaring temperatures and fires in the northwestern U.S. and Canada have so shockingly made clear, as has the staggering mega-drought, unprecedented in human memory, that now extends across significant parts of this country. As Jonathan Watts of the Guardian observed recently when it came to weather events in the Canadian and U.S. Northwest that were already exceeding the worst-case scenarios of climate scientists, "More people in more countries are feeling that their weather belongs to another part of the world." How painfully true. Canada, it seems, is now the new Persian Gulf.
And given those blazing temperatures in our own backyards, including the Northeast where I live, who had time to notice that the ground (not air) temperature at one spot in Siberia (Siberia!) hit 118 degrees recently as heat waves scorched the region; or that, however grimly historic last year's 30-storm Atlantic hurricane season was (as its naming system ran through alphabets), we've just experienced the earliest fifth-named storm of any year on record? And who even registered the record number of Arizona senior citizens dying in overheating mobile homes in the midst of the ongoing heat emergency there or the scourge of grasshoppers swarming across the American West?
How germane, then, was my grandson's unnerving comment. As TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon suggests today, as she reports in from the burning West Coast (the "world's most extreme heat wave in modern history"), make no mistake about it, global warming is here and, if we don't act fast, god knows what it may be for our grandchildren. Tom
The Fires This Time
A Climate View from California
In San Francisco, we're finally starting to put away our masks. With 74% of the city's residents over 12 fully vaccinated, for the first time in more than a year we're enjoying walking, shopping, and eating out, our faces naked. So I was startled when my partner reminded me that we need to buy masks again very soon N95 masks, that is. The California wildfire season has already begun, earlier than ever, and we'll need to protect our lungs during the months to come from the fine particulates carried in the wildfire smoke that's been engulfing this city in recent years.
I was in Reno last September, so I missed the morning when San Franciscans awoke to apocalyptic orange skies, the air freighted with smoke from burning forests elsewhere in the state. The air then was bad enough even in the high mountain valley of Reno. At that point, we'd already experienced "very unhealthy" purple-zone air quality for days. Still, it was nothing like the photos that could have been from Mars then emerging from the Bay Area. I have a bad feeling that I may get my chance to experience the same phenomenon in 2021 and, as the fires across California have started so much earlier, probably sooner than September.
The situation is pretty dire: this state along with our neighbors to the north and southeast is now living through an epic drought. After a dry winter and spring, the fuel-moisture content in our forests (the amount of water in vegetation, living and dead) is way below average. This April, the month when it is usually at its highest, San Jose State University scientists recorded levels a staggering 40% below average in the Santa Cruz Mountains, well below the lowest level ever before observed. In other words, we have never been this dry.
Under the Heat Dome
When it's hot in most of California, its often cold and foggy in San Francisco. Today is no exception. Despite the raging news about heat records, it's not likely to reach 65 degrees here. So it's a little surreal to consider what friends and family are going through in the Pacific Northwest under the once-in-thousands-of-years heat dome that's settled over the region. A heat dome is an area of high pressure surrounded by upper-atmosphere winds that essentially pin it in place. If you remember your high-school physics, you'll recall that when a gas (for example, the air over the Pacific Northwest) is contained, the ratio between pressure and temperature remains constant. If the temperature goes up, the pressure goes up.
The converse is also true; as the pressure rises, so does the temperature. And that's what's been happening over Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia in normally chilly Canada. Mix in the fact that climate change has driven average temperatures in those areas up by three to four degrees since the industrial revolution, and you have a recipe for the disaster that struck the region recently.
And it has indeed been a disaster. The temperature in the tiny town of Lytton, British Columbia, for instance, hit 121 degrees on June 29th, breaking the Canadian heat record for the third time in as many days. (The previous record had stood since 1937.) That was Tuesday. On Wednesday night, the whole town was engulfed in the flames of multiple fires. The fires, in turn, generated huge pyrocumulus clouds that penetrated as high as the stratosphere (a rare event in itself), producing lightning strikes that ignited new fires in a vicious cycle that, in the end, simply destroyed the kilometer-long town.
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