Wildfire smoke smothering B.C. stark indicator of climate change, researchers say
Published Tuesday, September 15, 2020 10:46AM PDT Last Updated Tuesday, September 15, 2020 1:45PM PDT
QUADRA ISLAND -- The acrid blanket of smoke from wildfires raging in the U.S that is cloaking southwest British Columbia and Vancouver Island is expected to continue for the next couple of days.
Very high air quality health risk advisories established over the weekend are still impacting the lower half of the province.
Though immediate air quality health risks will abate shortly, the cloying wall of smoke is a stark indicator of what's in store as climate change continues to amplify the risk and ferocity wildfires, said air quality researcher Erik Krogh.
“You only have to look out the window right now to see the effects of climate change,” said Krogh, a co-director of the applied environmental research laboratory (AERL) at Vancouver Island University.
“These images are vivid, dramatic and scary, and have a big impact on human health.”
“The frequency and intensity of those events will increase with climate change,” he said. “And consequently, the frequency and intensity of poor air quality events will also increase.”
Krogh, who monitors atmospheric data in the Vancouver Island region, said the air quality currently was “severely impacted” across the southern swath of the province.
“It doesn't really matter where you are at the moment, whether you're in Campbell River, Nanaimo or Abbotsford,” he said.
The B.C. government's air quality health Index (AQHI) map indicated most communities in the south of the province were at the highest range of risk due to the smoke, as of Monday.
The public, especially the elderly, children and pregnant people, is advised to avoid any strenuous outdoor activity until the air quality improves.
Environment Canada also warned that individuals with heart or breathing problems are at greater risk and should follow medical advice about exercising and managing any health conditions.
The smoke should dissipate Tuesday through Thursday in B.C., according to Chris Rodell, a weather forecast researcher with the Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science department at the University of British Columbia.
A trough of low pressure and southerly winds drove the wildfire smoke into B.C., Rodell said.
“But winds are shifting to the typical westerlies we see in this part of the world, and the smoke will be transported east,” Rodell said, adding the smoke will likely move into Alberta.
On Tuesday, Canada Post announced it was suspending mail delivery due to poor air quality in several areas of B.C., including Metro Vancouver, much of Vancouver Island and in the Oakanagan Valley and Similkameen regions.
The wildfires in the western U.S., and the environmental and health impacts currently being experienced in B.C., pose no real surprise to scientists, Krogh said.
Scientists have long been measuring and expecting impacts from global warming, he said. But, given the gradual changes over extended periods of time, it is often hard for the public to envision or grasp how climate change will impact them, Krogh said.
However, this year, a number of events have demonstrated the impacts of climate change clearly and concretely to the public, he said.
“I call it 2020 vision,” Krogh said.
Wildfires ravaging California, Oregon and Washington states provide a vivid image of the negative impacts of global warming, he said.
While conversely, the COVID-19 pandemic illustrated a positive effect tied to drops in global emissions, he said.
Early in the pandemic, large urban centres worldwide saw skies clear and air quality improve as lockdowns and attendant declines in vehicle traffic and industrial activity dropped emissions, Krogh said.
“People all of a sudden got a clear view or vision of the human environmental footprint, particularly on the atmosphere and air quality,” he said. “The connection between us, what we do, and the environmental impacts became undeniable.”
“And this fire event has also shone a light on the more difficult, or more nebulous, connection between human activities and climate change.”
Although contrary in effect, both the U.S. wildfires and the emissions drop tied to the COVID-19 crisis underscore fact that climate change impacts and solutions transcend borders, Krogh said.
“It's not unique, local political problems that we have to solve here,” he said. “It's a global problem which requires global solutions.”