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Monday, October 14, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Paul Lindholdt: Wildfires signal climate in calamity

By Paul Lindholdt

Horizons already are cloudy. Wildfires from Canada are inundating Spokane skies with smoke. How do we make sense of it all?

The Fourth Annual Climate Assessment offers an able explanation. That interagency governmental report should silence the climate-crisis skeptics among us. As we head into summer, a glance back might be useful.

Three record-breaking years of wildfires have frazzled everyone in our neck of the Northwest. The three months from June 1 through Aug. 31, 2015, proved to be the hottest, the driest, and the fiercest on record in Spokane. At our international airport, we received a mere 0.44 inch of rain in those months in 2015. The average for June through August is 2.48 inches.

Glancing back to 1902, we find the Yacolt Complex burn near Mount St. Helens ravaged 370 square miles. It reigned as the largest in state history for a century. In 2014, however, the 391-square-mile Carlton Complex of wildfires near Brewster and Pateros outstripped the Yacolt, destroying 353 homes and causing $100 million in damage. The very next year, the Okanogan Complex on the Colville Reservation surpassed both the Yacolt and the Carlton, scorching a total of 400 square miles.

Numb from these blunt numbers yet?

Then consider the word “smoke-bird” that is coming into currency. It names a person who migrates far from home to escape the wildfire season. One who flies to evade bad air. Climate change coins new words.

Smell and taste entwine so far, in mammalian heads like ours, that we are ingesting wildfire smoke. Gases and particulates cause throats to catch, eyes to stream, lungs to cough up stuff. Pine resins lodge in heads.

Mountain air turns murky for days, reducing visibility to hundreds of yards. “Apocalyptic,” some sufferers mutter. Peering out windows, they witness a gloom whose only frame of reference is the world’s end. Our annual wildfires signal a climate in calamity, a dehydrating globe.

As part of this global climate crisis, more than 700 Northwest glaciers are shrinking fast, says Mauri Pelto. He studied glaciation for three decades on the slopes of Mount Rainier, the most heavily glaciated peak in the lower 48 states. Now he directs the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project. Each new summer drought erodes 5% to 10% of regional ice-field volumes.

Signature glaciers around the Northwest are punier now than at any time in the past 4,000 years, Pelto shows. Formerly frozen ancient forests are coming to light as millennia-old ice pulls back. Locked-in carbon comes unlocked to wreak more havoc on the atmosphere. Glacier National Park’s name might soon be a sad misnomer, an irony of a climate changing fast.

Nor are climate disruptions confined to the Northwest. Marine windstorms are devastating in proportions never seen before. Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Sandy in 2012, and Harvey, Irma and Maria in 2017 all offer tragic reminders of the growing jeopardy to everyone.

Dozens perished in Sandy, hundreds in Harvey, thousands in Katrina and Maria. The needy have always gotten hit the hardest. The poor have always taken it on the chin.

Some deniers insist there’s no need for alarm, that such storms are “500-year events,” even “1,000-year events.” Never mind the fluke that five such storms should make landfall in 12 years. Extreme weather is the new norm, and the norm is a downward sliding scale.

The topic of the climate crisis causes fights. My insurance agent grew testy when I gave my opinion, even though his industry has the most to lose. Citizens on the right side of the voting aisle become combative if one suggests we throttle back our carbon emissions. One honest economist told me, “We can’t afford to address climate change!”

Other deniers blame environmentalists for the crisis by claiming that logging rollbacks are the cause. Or by rallying behind the 3% of scientific beards who claim that Homo sapiens is not contributing to the climate crisis. Or by blustering that the climate is changing this rapidly on its own. Market-generated counter-science is encouraging them.

What a flock of ostriches.

Anyone who says he knows more than “97% … of actively publishing climate scientists” ought to cite their sources, as we in higher education say. Cite your sources and show your professional credentials.

I’m no scientist and I don’t play one on TV. I prefer to let NASA, NOAA and other credentialed specialists guide our public policy.

Paul Lindholdt is an Eastern Washington University professor of English who specializes in the interdisciplinary environmental humanities.

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