Sign In or Create an Account.

By continuing, you agree to the Terms of Service and acknowledge our Privacy Policy


The Smoke Is Actually Making Us Colder — For Now

It will probably warm the planet in the long run.

A graph.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Even though severe wildfires can warm the planet over time, right now the smoke floating down from Quebec to the United States is actually making temperatures cooler.

Robert Field, a scientist at NASA and Columbia University, told me that by his rough estimation the smoke earlier in June reduced temperatures by around 5 degrees Celsius — or 9 degrees Fahrenheit — in New York City.

Field came to this figure by comparing weather forecasts, which are produced by models that do not account for smoke, and the actual observed temperature on the given smokey day.

This effect was also observed on the East Coast by electric grid operators, who noted that lower than expected temperatures led to less usage of air conditioning and demand on the grid (although the smoke also meant less generation from solar panels).

This is hardly a surprising or counterintuitive finding: Smoke essentially works as a cloud, blocking energy from the sun from reaching the surface.

A team of scientists looking at the climate effects from COVID-19 and the attendant lockdowns actually found that the larger influence on climate came from the Australian wildfires of 2019 and 2020, which caused “a strong and abrupt climate cooling.” Some of the most dramatic climatic events have been cooling associated with pumping aerosols into the atmosphere, either from volcanic eruptions or, uhhh, wildfires in Canada.

And then there’s the long-term effect on the climate. These wildfires have pumped a massive amount of carbon into the air, but an exact accounting for forest fires in high latitude, boreal forests is tricky, Field explained, because there’s a natural fire cycle. “The starting point is that fire is a necessary ecological process in those forests. Those forests are meant to burn every 70 to 80 years. And over that time period the CO2 emissions that we’re seeing now will be offset over time by regenerating forests,” Field said.

But, he cautioned, in a warming world, these cycles could be disrupted. “Higher intensity fires can be harder to recover from and that carbon offsetting can take longer,” Field told me.

There are also worries about how in some northern forests, the soil’s so-called “legacy carbon” — old leaves, branches, and roots that have been long-buried — could be released by recent forest fires.

The exact effect of fire on greenhouse gas concentrations remains an active area of research. What’s well established is that when fire leads to changes in land use like clearing rainforests for agriculture — carbon emissions will go up and stay up.

In short, what clearly matters for emissions is not so much forests burning, but forests turning into something else after they burn, whether it be pasture or crops or degraded forests that absorb less carbon. One paper found that about a fifth of fire emissions “represent a source of CO2 that can be termed as irreversible … because it cannot be recovered by vegetation regrowth or soil carbon rebuild.”

Climate change is almost certainly making wildfires more likely and more severe with all sorts of horrible impacts on our health. But what's truly scary is that these wildfires may also be making climate change itself worse.

Matthew Zeitlin

Matthew is a correspondent at Heatmap. Previously he was an economics reporter at Grid, where he covered macroeconomics and energy, and a business reporter at BuzzFeed News, where he covered finance. He has written for The New York Times, the Guardian, Barron's, and New York Magazine. Read More

Read More
Electric Vehicles

AM Briefing: Tesla’s Big Test

On low expectations, global EV demand, and heat domes

What to Expect From Tesla’s Earnings Report
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Current conditions: A cold front brought an enduring heat wave in Mexico to an end • Northwest Texas could see large hail this afternoon • It will be 60 degrees Fahrenheit and rainy in Ottawa, where delegates are gathering this week to hammer out a global plastics treaty.


1. Investors wait anxiously for Q1 Tesla earnings

Tesla will report first-quarter earnings today after the markets close, and expectations are pretty low. Analysts think the EV maker will report at least a 4% drop in revenue compared to Q1 last year. In the earnings call, CEO Elon Musk will probably be keen to talk about his big plans for the robotaxi, but investors will want him to elaborate on more pressing issues, like waning demand, steep price cuts, the Cybertruck recall, and whether plans for a $25,000 Tesla have really been scrapped. They’ll be looking for Musk to be “the adult in the room,” said Dan Ives, a Wedbush Securities analyst. As well as setting out a clear vision for the company’s future, investors may want Musk to acknowledge his recent missteps as a sign he’s ready to turn things around. But as Nick Winfield wrote at The Information, “expecting the truculent Tesla CEO to admit his mistakes is probably too much to ask for.” Tesla’s stock is down 41% this year. The company frantically cut prices on several models in the last few days and announced a round of big layoffs, which apparently included the entire U.S. marketing team and part of the design team.

Keep reading...Show less

Are Pollsters Getting Climate Change Wrong?

Why climate might be a more powerful election issue than it seems.

A pollster on an ice floe.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Climate change either is or isn’t the biggest issue of our time. It all depends on who you ask — and, especially, how.

In March, as it has since 1939, Gallup asked Americans what they thought was the most important problem facing the country. Just 2% of respondents said “environment/pollution/climate change” — fewer than those who said “poor leadership” or “unifying the country” (although more than those who said “the media.”) Pew, meanwhile, asked Americans in January what the top priority for the president and Congress ought to be for this year, and “dealing with climate change” ranked third-to-last out of 20 issues — well behind “defending against terrorism,” “reducing availability of illegal drugs,” and “improving the way the political system works.”

Keep reading...Show less

AM Briefing: Earth Day Edition

On expanding solar access, the American Climate Corps, and union news

Biden’s Big Earth Day Agenda
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Current conditions: Torrential rains forced Mauritius to shut down its stock exchange • “Once in a century” flooding hit southern China • In the Northern Hemisphere, the Lyrid meteor shower peaks tonight.


1. Biden kicks off Earth Day with $7 billion for expanding solar access

Today is Earth Day, but President Biden and his cabinet are celebrating all week long. Senior members of the administration have scheduled a national tour of events and announcements related to the president’s climate and environmental record. It starts with Biden’s visit to Prince William Forest Park in Triangle, Virginia, today, where he will announce $7 billion is being awarded to 60 state and local governments, tribes, and national and regional nonprofits through the Environmental Protection Agency’s Solar for All initiative, which aims to support solar in low- to moderate-income communities. The average grant size will be more than $80 million, and the funding will be used to design new programs and bolster existing ones that subsidize the cost of rooftop solar installations, community solar projects, and battery storage.

Keep reading...Show less