Helping to bring Pope Francis’s encyclical to life in our community
From the Diocese of Syracuse “Care for Our Common Home” Task Force
Winds of (climate) change
By Larry Tanner and Eric Foertch
For many in Central New York, climate change has been an existential threat. Though real, it seems largely theoretical, on the distant horizon of our awareness. The fires and smoke in early June changed our collective consciousness, at least for as long as we remember them. The link between climate change and wildfire is not complex. Winters with decreasing snow accumulation result in drier springs as drying forest underbrush provides ready tinder. Catastrophic wildfires have become disturbingly common. Who can forget 2020, when over 10 million acres of forest burned in the western states? While we experienced some hazy days during that summer here in the Northeast, most of us in Central New York were spared the severity of this destruction. Due to the warming, driven mainly by fossil fuel emissions, fire seasons start earlier and last longer than several decades ago. According to recent research in the journal Environmental Research Letters, human-caused climate change bears responsibility for almost half of the acreage burned between 1986 and 2021.
This June, the climate crisis struck much closer to home. High temperatures in late May and early June mirrored record-shattering warmth in Nova Scotia and Quebec. This heat, coming on the heels of a drier-than-normal spring, set the stage for fires in these two provinces. So far this year, less than halfway through the fire season, more than 400 individual fires have burned 10 million acres of forest across Canada. Most fires are in the country’s western provinces, British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan, but more than 100 have burned in Quebec. This is the source of the smoke that blanketed the Northeastern and mid-Atlantic states in early June. Dense, smoky plumes streamed southward, carried by winds rotating counterclockwise around a low-pressure air mass centered over the Maritime provinces. As of this writing in mid-June, the fires in Quebec still burn. The only real change has been that the low-pressure system shifted eastward, ending the wind pattern bringing smoke south.
As northerly winds drove smoke into our region, the Air Quality Index (AQI) rose drastically. Typically for the summer months of Central New York, the AQI is in the Good (under 50) to Moderate (50-100) range. On June 7, the AQI breached 400 and entered the Hazardous Category. New York City received the questionable distinction of the world’s worst air quality, surpassing notoriously smoggy cities like Beijing and Mumbai. The larger particulate material, referred to as PM10 (in the 10 micrometer range; for reference, the width of human hairs is around 70 micrometers), can be inhaled into the lungs and irritate the eyes, nose and throat. Most of the smoke that traveled southward was fine particulate matter, PM2.5 (particles less than 2.5 micrometers). This material is especially dangerous because it can go far deeper into the lungs and into the bloodstream. This poses particular dangers for the elderly and those with asthma or heart conditions. Tens of millions of people — not to mention untold numbers of animals — were exposed to hazardous air conditions. The most affected were those least able to protect themselves — outdoor workers unable to shelter inside, as well as the poor and homeless. Nothing stands in the way of this happening again.
Is there a solution to the crisis in which we find ourselves? As Pope Francis suggested in 2015, “Enlighten those who possess power and money that they may avoid the sin of indifference, that they may love the common good, advance the weak, and care for this world in which we live” (Laudato Si’ , 246).