Is this the ‘new normal’? It looks that way …
As I write this column in Ashland in mid-August, I’m surrounded by fire. Just as the 413,000-acre Bootleg Fire is winding down in Klamath and Lake Counties, the even-more massive Dixie Fire in the northern Sierras has crossed half a million acres and is still going strong.
There’s the 80,000-acre Monument Fire in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. There’s the 50,000-acre Antelope Fire in the Klamath National Forest. There’s the Skyline Ridge Complex and the Rough Patch Complex in Douglas County. And that’s just a sample. Plus, this weekend’s forecast is for extreme heat on top of extreme drought with more dry lightning on the way.
While we still have a relatively brief window in which to affect how much we disrupt the planetary processes that make Earth habitable, a significant amount of the damage is already done.
As a result of all this fire, we’ve been choking on air with “Unhealthy” to “Very Unhealthy” air quality readings for a week now. Outside dining is a drag, outdoor exercise is unwise, outdoor activities of any kind are pretty much off the table. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival — struggling to recover from two years of smoke and a year of COVID-19 — is once again cancelling outdoor performances. The Britt Festival and dozens of smaller outdoor venues are likely to find themselves in similar straits.
And we have a good six to eight more weeks of this before any hope of enough rain to quench our parched landscape and end this year’s fire season.
Now, into this already grim summer drops the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The U.N. organization just issued its sixth, and most definitive, assessment yet of the state of planet’s climate. And to say it’s sobering is a vast understatement.
The report’s 234 authors, synthesizing more than 14,000 scientific studies from across the globe, conclude that there is no remaining doubt that human activities are causing the increasingly unavoidable impacts of climate change. And the damage we’ve done is dramatic.
“Each of the past four decades has been successively warmer than any that preceded it, dating to 1850,” says a Washington Post article on the IPCC report. “Humans have warmed the climate at a rate unparalleled since before the fall of the Roman Empire. To find a time when the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere changed this much this fast, you would need to rewind 66 million years to the end of the age of the dinosaurs … Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen to levels not seen in 2 million years, the authors state. The oceans are turning acidic. Sea levels continue to rise. Arctic ice is disintegrating. Weather-related disasters are growing more extreme and affecting every region of the world.”
And, the report goes on to say, many of those impacts will be with us for a long time to come. As the New York Times put it …
“The world has already warmed about 1.1 degree Celsius (about 2 degrees Fahrenheit) since the 19th century. The report concludes that humans have put so much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that this warming will continue at least until the middle of the century, even if nations take immediate steps today to sharply cut emissions.
“That means some of the noticeable effects the world is seeing now — like extreme droughts, severe heat waves and catastrophic downpours and flooding — will continue to worsen for at least the next 30 years.”
The core takeaway from the latest climate assessment is that, while we still have a relatively brief window in which to affect how much we disrupt the planetary processes that make Earth habitable, a significant amount of the damage is already done. And even if we finally get serious about eliminating greenhouse gas emissions, it will be decades, if not centuries, before that damage heals.
Climatologists say larger and more frequent wildfires are among the ways that’s playing out on this part of the planet.
So, does this mean every summer in Southern Oregon and Northern California is going to be as plagued by drought, fire and smoke as this one has been? Probably not. We may well have some summers which are lighter than others.
But what we’re seeing this year is well on its way to becoming the default, the new normal. And, as much as we don’t like it, we’re going to have to figure out how to live in this world we’ve created.