Wildfire summer: What climate change looks and smells like.

I have returned from my trip to Boston to do research for my dissertation, Ten Years of Winter. My trip was generally uneventful, except for the strange and somewhat unsettling conditions I encountered just as I was setting out from Portland, Oregon last Saturday, August 22. Wildfires have been a terrible problem in the Pacific Northwest this summer, with several big fires in Oregon and Washington that have burned more than 7 million acres. Last Saturday, the smoke from these various fires totally filled the Willamette Valley to a degree we haven’t seen in a very long time, if ever. I found it noteworthy because it was a very tangible and visible manifestation of climate change–literally hanging in the air, everywhere, and unmistakable.

On Saturday I took a train from my home in Eugene up to Portland, and my first stop on Saturday evening, before I arrived in Boston, was a hotel at Jantzen Beach on the Columbia River, separating Oregon and Washington. During the train ride, which went through much of the flat farmland in the Willamette Valley, I was amazed at the look of the sun in the hazy sky. There were no clouds, but the quality of the sunlight was as on an overcast day. The smell of smoke was pervasive. When I got to Portland I found it even worse: the air hung very thick and heavy, unmoved by any breeze or air currents. Due to the urban microclimate it was warmer in Portland than outside of it. Even Jantzen Beach, normally a cool spot in the metropolitan area due to its fronting of the Columbia River, was a sticky, smoky mess. You could smell the fires as well as see the smoke, which sank to ground level and literally filled the valley. The worst “smoke event” I recalled previously was from the summer of 2008, also a summer of intense wildfires, but 2015 has been much worse.

portland smoke

This view from Jantzen Beach across the Columbia River doesn’t quite do justice to the hazy look of the sky during Portland’s smoke condition on August 22, 2015.

What does this have to do with climate change? A lot. A growing consensus of climate scientists believes that increasingly intense wildfires are at least partially the result of climate change. In addition to lengthening the wildfire season, climate change has contributed mightily to the terrible drought we’ve been suffering all along the West Coast, not just in California. Drought dries out forest floors and makes more areas susceptible to burning, as well as making it harder to fight the fires once they begin. Experts also believe that climate change is responsible for more high-intensity winds which help spread fires once they get started. It also makes intuitive sense: it’s logical that more hot days, and more rain-free days in a summer, are going to result in greater fire dangers.

The evidence that wildfires are becoming increasingly more severe in the United States is hard to ignore. The average amount of acreage burned by wildfires in the U.S. has been steadily increasing since the 1990s, doubling, or perhaps even more. The U.S. Forest Service has been spending a greater and greater part of its annual budget in fire suppression and management. The economic and environmental costs of wildfires have also been increasing. Given the fact that virtually every other measurable condition connected to climate change–sea level rise, extreme weather like hurricanes and heat waves, etc.–is also getting worse, it’s difficult to accept that wildfires aren’t also being made much worse and more pervasive by climate change.

willamette river drought winter

This photo of the drought-ravaged Willamette River was taken in March 2015. We’ve had so little rain since then that it looks just the same in August.

As I sat eating dinner in a hotel restaurant on Saturday evening, looking out at the smoke-hazed vista of the Columbia River, I thought about the way our river that bisects my hometown, across which I walk nearly every day to get to work, has looked since late winter. The Willamette has been shockingly low, barely ankle-deep for most of its expanse. Several times as I’ve walked over the bridge I’ve thought, “This is what climate change looks like.” It’s entirely possible that I may never again see the river much fuller than it is now. This drought could potentially last for years. Drought conditions, including wildfires, could be the new normal for many Americans in the west.

The smoke conditions in Portland underscored, for me, a difficult truth: these kinds of visual and sensory reminders of climate change are going to become increasingly pervasive in our lives. Climate change has stopped being something abstract that you can only see through charts, graphs and information given to us by scientists or the media. It’s now something we can see around us, or smell, taste and touch. Because climate change is a problem that will take longer to solve than a human lifetime–assuming we decide we want to solve it–it’s safe to say that these first-hand encounters with climate change will continue for the rest of our lives. And they will get worse. The most chilling thing I realized as I saw the smoke in Portland was that sometime in the future, probably the very near future, there will be another smoky day that will be much worse than this one, as this one was much worse than 2008. Our wildfire summers are only just beginning.

The header image in this article is in the public domain. The photo of Jantzen Beach is by me, all rights reserved; the photo of the Willamette River is by Cody Climer, also all rights reserved, used with permission.
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