Last week, the US Naval Research Laboratory held a very 2021 press conference, in which scientists reported a very 2021 outbreak of “smoke thunderclouds.” Catastrophic wildfires, exacerbated by catastrophic climate change , had produced a rash of pyrocumulonimbus plumes over the western United States and Canada, known in the scientific vernacular as pyroCb.
That led a pair of researchers to publish a new perspective piece in the journal Science today calling for a multidisciplinary push to better characterize these microbes and determine how they might be making wildfire smoke even worse for human lungs.
It’s grief over the thousands of structures and at least 33 lives lost so far; grief over another villain conspiring with Covid-19 to lock people indoors; grief that the orange-hued dystopia of Blade Runner is now a reality in smoky San Francisco ; grief over losing any sense of normalcy, or indeed a clear future.
Scientists still have much to learn about Covid-19, but, says Jessica McCarty, a geographer and fire scientist at Miami University, “We know that there's linkages between people who live in highly-polluted areas and their likelihood of getting any type of respiratory illness, as well as viral infections.” Smog from cars, for instance, remains a major threat to human health.
“If you look at a fire engine going down the street, there's four personnel inside who technically are not socially distanced,” says Mike Mohler, deputy director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also known as Cal Fire.
The grazers might also prefer grasses to shrubs, which changes the vertical structure of the vegetation, further increasing the fire risk.So while the grazers are doing a helpful job of eating up some potential tinder, they’re leaving behind vegetation that is extra-flammable—which is a mixed bag, in terms of wildfire prevention.
As the mass climbs higher, the smoky air cools and forms into a pyrocumulonimbus cloud, a soup of water and smoke particles towering miles into the sky.
And just as fast-moving flames swallowed up Paradise in 2018 , fires are moving so quickly, they’re overwhelming whole Australian towns.
All it takes is one spark to ignite ultra-dry brush, and high winds will carry that flame with incredible speed, overwhelming communities like Paradise, where many residents simply didn’t have time to escape .
“If the assumptions in your analysis turn out to be wrong, your whole strategy can blow up and be immensely costly, and delay your bankruptcy,” says Jared Ellias, an expert in bankruptcy law at UC Hastings College of the Law. That means you try to get through it fast, and with minimal chaos.
“If you imagine the atmosphere over your head as a sponge, you can’t wring it out anymore,” says Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA.At ground level, the warm air screaming through the mountains sucks away whatever moisture might be left in the vegetation—which is increasingly little as the climate warms in California and autumns grow increasingly dry .
Cut off power and you risk the ire of the state's Public Utilities Commission: Skirting the danger of starting a wildfire could end up bricking medical devices and critical infrastructure.
Despite a flurry of stories in the media about people losing their insurance and leaving the area, Mark Sektnan, president of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, told me, “We’re not seeing a trend.” Insurance prices are increasing in some places, but California doesn’t allow insurers to jack up premiums based on recent disasters, and nearly everyone can find home insurance if they want it, he said.
Thus the fire sucks in surface winds.Researchers are using supercomputers and lookout stations like this to model the dynamics of wildfires in real time. At Los Alamos National Laboratory, atmospheric scientist Alexandra Jonko is using a supercomputer and a system called FIRETEC to model fires in extreme detail.
High winds blow embers perhaps miles in advance of a blaze, firebrands that land on clusters of pine needles or leaves on roofs, quickly triggering hundreds if not thousands of house fires, as appears to have happened in Paradise.Part of what makes the destruction of Paradise so shocking is that we tend to assume that cities just don’t burn anymore.
“We have a weather event, in this case a downslope windstorm, where, as opposed to the normal westerly winds, we get easterly winds that are cascading off the crest of the Sierra Nevada,” says Neil Lareau, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Nevada, Reno.A windstorm barreling from the east just set the stage for this week's burning disaster.
What’s needed is a national wildfire strategy such as the one proposed by the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers several years ago. And finally, what’s needed is for the federal government to restore funding for the Canadian Forest Service to at least 1990s levels, when it employed 2,200 people.
In Napa Valley, architect Brandon Jorgensen has tackled this question in the aftermath of the Wine Country fires that destroyed nearly 9,000 homes and buildings last October. Using “thoughtful design,” they’re looking for ideas that are more resilient against future fires as well as more socially and environmentally conscious than what was lost.
By 2050, an estimated 83.7 million people over the age of 65 will call the US home, nearly doubling the current population—and a paper published in April found that bad smoke days during California’s 2015 wildfire season caused spikes in emergency room visits, with the most pronounced impact on patients over 65.