Wildfires Show Snowballing Effect of Climate Change: Study

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By Bobby Magill

California wildfires this month have killed dozens of people and laid waste to thousands of homes and neighborhoods while affecting the health of the millions of people who have inhaled the smoke.

The fires are also among the most immediate and devastating examples of the compounding effects of global warming, Camilo Mora, an associate professor in the Geography and Environment Department at the University of Hawaii, told Bloomberg Environment.

Mora is the lead author of a study published Nov. 19 in Nature Climate Change, showing that regions are beginning to suffer from cascading consequences of climate change.

If global greenhouse gas emissions continue on their current trajectory, many more people across the globe will become vulnerable to multiple climate hazards at the same time—such as heat waves, rising seas, and drought—by the end of the century, the study said. Mora’s team designed an interactive map showing potential cumulative climate hazards in different parts of the world.

The San Francisco Bay Area will be simultaneously vulnerable to rising seas, changes in ocean chemistry, heat waves, drought, loss of fresh water, extreme rainfall, and wildfires, according to the study.

Washington, D.C. would see rising seas, ocean acidification, heat waves, drought, and extreme rainfall.

“When you start putting all these things together, you figure out that truly adapting to climate is far too exorbitant” for societies, Mora said. Climate change is “not a joke,” he said. “It’s a terror movie.”

New Urgency

The paper was published less than two weeks before international climate negotiations kick off in Poland, where nearly 200 countries plan to finalize rules for turning the U.N.'s Paris climate agreement into action.

The United Nations published a report in October showing that the globe has about a decade to begin snuffing out greenhouse gas emissions to keep the most disastrous effects of climate change at bay.

“This [Nov. 19] study underscores and builds on that urgency,” Astrid Caldas, a climate scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists who wasn’t affiliated with most recent report, told Bloomberg Environment. “The more greenhouse gases, the more severe and multiple the impacts will be for certain locations.”

The wildfires In California made worse by heat waves and long-term drought affect local economies, public health, water quality, and much more simultaneously, Mora said.

For example, the San Francisco Bay Area’s air quality became some of the worst in the country because of smoke blowing into the region from the Camp and Woolsey fires elsewhere in California, which together have killed more than 80 people and destroyed more than 13,000 structures.

“A lot of the things the study talks about, in the California wildfires, it’s really happening,” Caldas said. “Climate change is a hazard multiplier.”

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