“These climate extremes are going to continue”: The toxic cloud upon us

“These climate extremes are going to continue”: The toxic cloud upon us

Canada is on fire.

The smog fallout downwind has set off air quality alerts for 13 states south of the border with the worst air quality currently being reported in upstate New York from Syracuse to Binghamton. Toxic smog has extended down along the East Coast and into the Ohio Valley as millions of Americans are being advised to curtail outdoor activity if they have pre-existing health conditions.

This afternoon poor visibility at Newark Liberty International Airport and New York City’s LaGuardia Airport prompted the FAA to slow air traffic for lack of visibility. “Exposure to elevated levels of fine particles such as wood smoke can increase the likelihood of respiratory symptoms in sensitive individuals and aggravate heart or lung disease,” the National Weather Service warned.

Monday, Reuters reported “Canada is on track for its worst-ever year of wildfire destruction as warm and dry conditions are forecast to persist through to the end of the summer after an unprecedented start to the fire season” with blazes officials said on Monday “burning in nearly all Canadian provinces and territories.”

“The distribution of fires from coast to coast this year is unusual. At this time of the year, fires usually occur only on one side of the country at a time, most often that being in the west,” Michael Norton, an official with Canada’s Natural Resources ministry, told Reuters.

Yan Boulanger, with Natural Resources Canada told the wire service that “over the last 20 years, we have never seen such a large area burned so early in the season.  Partially because of climate change, we’re seeing trends toward increasing burned areas throughout Canada.”

By last weekend officials were estimating that 3.3 million hectares (a hectare is equal to 2.47 acres) had already gone up in flames “about 13 times the 10-year average” forcing more than 120,000 people to leave their homes, according to Reuters.

Of the over 400 active wildfires, over half were deemed out of control.

After years of handwringing, Canada’s unprecedented wildfire season, aggravated by the weather distortions of climate change, is presenting us a teachable moment as we find ourselves checking the smog alert like we did the daily COVID numbers just a few months ago.

Mayor Ras J. Baraka had to urge his city residents to take precautions during the air quality alert issued by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP). One of the features of the climate crisis, like the pandemic, is it hits the communities hardest that have the highest concentration of the chronically ill, like the many thousands of New Jersey’s youths from communities of color who suffer from asthma at a much higher rate than their white peers.

“Due to heavy smoke from a convergence of wildfires as far away as Canada, the NJDEP has issued an air quality alert for the northern region of the state, including Newark,” said Mayor Baraka in a statement today. “I ask everyone to protect their health by staying informed and carefully following NJDEP’s guidelines throughout the duration of the alert.”

Specifically, NJ DEP warned at-risk residents to stay indoors as much as possible, keep their windows closed, use an air purifier if possible, limit their outdoor physical activity and if they had to go out for an extended period to wear a mask. Officials flagged children, older adults, and people with heart disease, asthma, or other lung diseases as being particularly vulnerable to the degraded air quality.

“I think it would be common sense that when the National Weather Service and the NJDEP have both issued a code red air quality day with the weather service saying air quality is worse today, our state workforce should be kept insider as much as possible,” texted Fran Ehret, New Jersey state director of the CWA, which represents 40,000 state workers many of whom work outdoors.

Finally, after months of prodding from the environmentalists Gov. Phil Murphy announced yesterday the adoption of the  Inland Flood Protection Rule to better protect New Jersey’s communities from worsening flooding and stormwater runoff.  The announcement was welcomed but the delay was inexcusable.

“The Inland Flood Protection Rule will serve as a critical component of my Administration’s comprehensive strategy to bolster our state’s resilience amid the worsening impacts of climate change,” Murphy said in his statement yesterday. “As a national model for climate adaptation and mitigation, we can no longer afford to depend on 20th-century data to meet 21st-century challenges. This rule’s formation and upcoming adoption testify to our commitment to rely on the most up-to-date science and robust stakeholder engagement to inform our most crucial policy decisions.”

The Governor got the rhetoric right way back in his January 2020 Executive Order 100 citing a 2019 report  “New Jersey’s Rising Seas and Changing Coastal Storms”   that showed “that sea-level rise projections in New Jersey are more than two times the global average and that the sea level in New Jersey could rise from 2000 levels by up to 1.1 feet by 2030, 2.1 feet by 2050, and 6.3 feet by 2100, underscoring the urgent need for action to protect the State from adverse climate change impacts.”

In the late summer of 2021, Hurricane Ida took 90 lives in total when it inundated a nine-state swath of the Northeast. Damage estimates for New Jersey ranged between $8 to $10 billion and in the $7.5 to $9 billion range in New York. In October 2012, Superstorm Sandy caused $70.2 billion worth of damage, left 8.5 million people without power,  and destroyed 650,000 homes and was responsible for the deaths of at least 72 Americans.

“New Jersey is experiencing increased effects of climate change—this is a climate crisis and what we are seeing and will continue to see are periods of dryness that lead to drought and wildfires and then followed by periods of big rain events that lead to flooding—so we are going to have too much water excerpt when we don’t have enough of it,” said Jennifer Coffey, executive director of the Association of New Jersey’s Environmental Commissions.  “These climate extremes are going to continue for New Jersey and the Northeast for many, many decades to come and we need to prepare ourselves for those impacts and become more resilient. So, we need to shore up our water supplies and also need to increase the intelligence that we use when we map storm water and that’s what these rules do.”

While we continue to debate climate change and the need to stop burning fossil fuels, the physical manifestation of the crisis is all around us whether we choose to make the connections or not. When wildfires on this hemispheric scale burn out of control it should prompt a sense of urgency for us to try and reduce our reliance on burning fossil fuels to power our society.

“This is the time to reject the seven fossil fuel projects here in New Jersey,” said Paula Rogovin, longtime Bergen County environmental activist. “What are they waiting for? It is going to get worse. This is the ultimate teachable moment. My grandson in New York City is in school and they can’t do anything outside. This is the time to recognize it is not getting better. We are not even in the summertime yet. The wildfires are just beginning.”

This morass had been building for days but we were too distracted to really notice how our atmosphere was being consumed by a jaundiced mega-cloud drifting south like a welcome mat from Hades.

And then the kids couldn’t go outside for recess.

Pray for rain to redeem us.