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How Wildfire Will Impact California’s Environment for Years to Come


This is climate change in motion

As I write this from my Mission District art studio, the omnipresent smell of a campfire permeating each square inch of the modest space, I fret about the health of my lungs. But even more so, I worry about the well-being of our planet.

The most obvious eco-effect of the fires that is quite literally in your face (and respiratory system) is the smoke filling the air. And some of its effects can’t be seen with the naked eye.

For example, this mix of carbon monoxide and other volatile chemicals is causing another, literally microscopic dystopia: bacteria mutations in the great outdoors.

Scientists have demonstrated that smoke from pine and eucalyptus woods — both of which are common in Northern California since the Australians introduced eucalyptus to the state during the Gold Rush in the 1850s — have caused genetic mutations in affected bacteria. Moreover, a study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives in 2018 suggests that these bacterial mutations also serve as indicators for elevated risks of cancer.

Granted, the scope and types of these mutations aren’t yet known all too well, but they’re happening nonetheless.

But, as 2020’s proven to us: Mother Nature has a tendency to self-correct at the expense of humans when trying to balance herself.

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Thankfully, the rain that falls amid a wildfire-smoked sky isn’t toxic. Wildfire smoke is dominated by carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide; little to no sulfur dioxide, the culprit of acid rain, makes up those clouds of ash. However, that’s not to say you should put away your N95 mask as soon as the smoke settles.

While wildfires, by their very nature, are a part of a healthy ecosystem and have happened throughout California’s history, it can’t be underestimated that the scope of the wildfires we’re now seeing is a direct feedback relationship with climate change. Annually, some seven billion tons of sequestered carbon dioxide is released back into the atmosphere via wildfires, with that figure only increasing year after year.

And the black carbon, a short-lived climate pollutant, that’s released from wildfires can also actually absorb heat while floating around in the air and temporarily warm the atmospheres where it pockets in across the country, continent, and world. Recent research shows that the heat-trapping potency — though short-lived — is much higher than previously thought, somewhere between two-thirds to twice as much carbon dioxide, according to a recent study published in the open-access journal Journal of Geophysical Research.

The speed at which all this CO₂ is being released is equally shocking to boot.

California fire experts estimate that the blazes that devastated Northern California’s wine country in October 2017 emitted as much CO₂ in one week as all of California’s cars and trucks do over the course of a year. The 2018 California wildfires also threw an estimated 68 million tons of previously stored CO₂ back into the atmosphere.

To add insult to injury, according to NOAA scientist Pieter Tans — who heads the carbon cycle greenhouse gases group Greenhouse Gas Reference Network — says a fire destroying 500,000 acres can theoretically release the same total amount of CO₂ as six large coal-fired power plants do in one year.

The three largest Bay Area wildfires burning — the LNU Lightning Complex, SCU Lightning Complex, and CZU Lightning fires — have already burned north of 858,000 acres en masse as of this article’s publishing.

These atypically large, high-severity wildfires also burn swaths of land in ways that hinder the ability of an ecosystem to recover. Wildfires of this sheer magnitude undermine the conservation of native biodiversity by long-term or permanent loss of native vegetation, allow invasive species to thrive in those dystopian conditions (look no further than Australia’s flourishing cane toad populations), and cause long-term or permanent loss of essential habitat for native fauna.

Sure, wildfires can act as a reset button for an ecosystem — but climate change has forced Mother Nature to flip that switch far too many times. And it’s the unusual, unnatural frequency they’re happening at that’s particularly worrisome.

For example, the Australian wildfires of late 2019 — which burned some three million hectares in the eastern states of Queensland and New South Wales, an area nearly the size of Belgium — claimed over a billion animal lives by January of 2020. That amount of life killed in a single episode is what scientists consider a “mass die-off” event; those can take millennia, if not more, to bounce back from.

Forests are estimated to sequester up to 30% of human greenhouse gas emissions, and, with fewer and fewer areas able to recover from wildfires every year, one of the planet’s biggest carbon sinks is leaking at an alarming rate with no plug in sight.
While not as dire of a situation on the homefront, local endangered land-dwellers like the California tiger salamander and salt marsh harvest mouse could go the way of the dodo bird in our lifetime.

Fires also change the reflectivity of the land, called albedo, as more light-colored, translucent vegetation takes the place of the darker, thicker, more matured species that burn down. These lighter-colored patches of grasses and shrubs come in first, which, since they reflect more solar radiation, can have a cooling effect until the vegetation thickens and darkens again.

Scott Denning, an atmospheric scientist at Colorado State University, told WXshift that site-specific studies show this cooling effect in northern forests — like those in temperate Northern California that the Lightning Complex fires are destroying — can last for decades. (In a tropical rainforest, however, the dark canopy can regrow within a few years and remedy.) This long-drawn-out cooling can affect everything from a forest’s ability to sequester carbon dioxide to the very types of flora and fauna capable of living there, especially those that are temperature-dependent, like reptiles and amphibians.

When those new trees grow fast, they can actually start stashing away significant amounts of carbon quickly. Some recent research also suggests that global warming is preventing forest regrowth after forest fires, including those in the Bay Area and the rest of California.

Thankfully, Basin Redwood State Park survived the CZU Lightning fire with many of its ancient redwoods still alive, albeit charred. Hundreds of trees and countless acres are estimated to have burned because of the blaze, and because of climate change, the park’s uphill recovery battle is now steeper than ever.

Forests are estimated to sequester up to 30% of human greenhouse gas emissions, and, with fewer and fewer areas able to recover from wildfires every year, one of the planet’s biggest carbon sinks is leaking at an alarming rate with no plug in sight. If that emerges as a global trend in the subsequent decades, it means fewer forests will be available to take CO₂ out of the atmosphere, allowing the planet to warm further.

Alas, wildfires are only getting worse — a catalyzed pontification I eerily predicted some two years ago. And no: Things will not get better as times goes on unless we consciously, collectively, and creatively lessen our carbon footprints and heed the advice of global scientists from around the world.

Here are some resources providing solutions and information on how to lighten your environmental impact and keep up to date on current environmental happenings:

  • Union of Concerned Scientists
  • An overview of the state-run California Climate Adaptation Strategy
  • The California Air Resources Board
  • The California Adaptation Forum
  • Energy Upgrade California
  • 350 Bay Area

This article was originally published by Matt Charnock,

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