If you’ve seen pictures of the West Coast recently and wondered if the world was ending, you wouldn’t be far from the truth. Record-breaking fires in Oregon, Washington, and California have ravaged the coastline, leaving massive damage and apocalyptic skies in their wake.
These fires, which have been burning for three weeks, have now covered an area larger than the state of New Jersey. Washington Governor Jay Inslee stated more acres burned on Labor Day "than in 12 of the last entire fire seasons in the state of Washington." Many are grieving the personal losses of over 35 Americans killed, dozens missing, and thousands of homes burned. Evacuating residents wonder what kind of home, if any, they will return to. According to CBS News, Portland, Seattle and San Francisco are now listed amongst the top five cities with the worst air quality in the world. California governor Gavin Newsome compared it to smoking 400 cigarettes a day.
The residual effects of these fires are looming right above our heads. The Chicago Tribune states that thick smoke from the wildfires have caused “milky white” skies in Chicago and reached as far as Washington, D.C. Though smoke was to be expected, many have been left wondering at the peculiar orange and red skies outside their windows. These unsettling horizons have received comparisons to Stranger Things and the planet Mars. Yet contrary to popular belief, they have nothing to do with the actual color of the fire’s flames. According to the National Weather Service, sunlight interacts with different particles in the atmosphere and scatters according to how it hits them. Particles from wildfires like dust and smoke are significantly larger than gas molecules in the atmosphere, which causes light to scatter in longer wavelengths and create colors like red and orange. This phenomenon, referred to as Mie Scattering, is therefore responsible for social media shots of “Blade Runner 2020.”
Shots of red skies now may not seem so daunting, but they point to a dire catastrophe- climate change. The devastating West Coast fires have been fueled by dry vegetation and uncharacteristically high summer temperatures. Insider points out that these wildfires come just weeks after lightning strikes caused the second and third biggest fires in California’s history. The NOAA reports that just within the month of August the US was hit by four catastrophic disasters: two hurricanes, wildfires, and a Midwest derecho.
Scientists have warned the world about devastating disasters like these for decades. Experts consulted by CBS News warn that the recent escalation in the extremity and frequency of these weather events is evidence of an acceleration in global warming impacts, which were underestimated by computer models. "As we learn more, we are finding that many climate change impacts, including these sorts of extreme weather events, are playing out faster and with greater magnitude than our models predicted," said Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State.
What this means is that we can no longer ignore the signs of climate change. We need to advocate now for alternatives to fossil fuels and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. We don’t need to speak out like our grandchildren’s lives depend on it––our own lives depend on it.