Spectacular skies caused by Western wildfires are a reminder of collective stakes of climate change | Michigan Radio
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Spectacular skies caused by Western wildfires are a reminder of collective stakes of climate change

Sep 18, 2020

The wildfire season in the Pacific Northwest has been historic. With millions of acres of Western land up in flames, the trail of smoke has made its way to Michigan. It’s created strange and spectacular displays in the sky, especially at sunset. But Nick Schroeck says those beautiful colors hold an ugly truth: the impacts of climate change don’t stay in one spot.

Schroeck is an associate dean at the University of Detroit Mercy where he teaches environmental law. He says there are ways to mitigate these kinds of massive forest fires, but climate change is making those efforts less successful. Underbrush clearing and controlled burns can help, but it would take a lot of capital and labor to do it properly. Schroeck emphasizes that climate change is the predominant factor in making hotter, dryer summers that make forest underbrush prone to catching fire. 

“That’s something that from Indigenous people that were living in the western United States and western Canada, pre-colonial settlement, they would regularly have forest fires and set them and let them burn to continue to clean that underbrush, so that’s something that I think we can learn,” Schroeck said. “But climate change is definitely a factor.”

During a normal wildfire season, it would be very unusual for the smoke to travel far. But these wildfires, according to Schroeck, have had a similar effect on neighboring regions as a volcanic eruption would where weather patterns are affected many miles away.

Though the haze is visible in Michigan, Schroeck said the particulate matter in the air has not increased. That's a good thing becasue increased particulate matter in the air can be harmful to health, especially for those with respiratory issues. Still, the need to address climate change exacerbated wildfires is urgent for Michiganders, Schroeck says, because the pollution they produce doesn’t stay put. 

“Pollution does not respect borders, pollution does not respect political boundaries. It will migrate in the air. It will get up and travel in these air currents and can impact us, again, even though it’s thousands of miles away,” Schroeck said. 

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Catherine Nouhan.