Nowhere is ‘Climate Proof’
It’s time to put the idea of climate safe havens to rest.
When I stepped into the yellow-ish gray haze of New York City on Tuesday night, the air tasted of soot. My eyes stung and watered, inducing a headache. Even if you’ve felt it before, the visceral experience of wildfire smoke is a shock to the system. My mind went into flight mode. Do we need to get out of here? I thought. Like, right now, but also ... more permanently?
It’s not that I think of New York City as a climate safe haven. Increasingly crushing heat and humidity has repeatedly sent me into a panic. In the fall we play Russian Roulette with hurricanes. Scientists recently estimated that $8.1 billion in damages caused by 2012’s Hurricane Sandy were attributable to climate change-driven sea-level rise.
But despite the fact that this isn’t even the East Coast’s first experience with wildfire smoke, I doubt anyone here was expecting to be subjected to amber skies or spend hours tracking down an emergency air purifier. I may not be the only one contemplating an exit.
So where to go?
There’s now a whole genre of studies and articles designating certain cities or regions climate havens. In 2019, then-Harvard professor Jesse Keenan famously pronounced Duluth, Minnesota, “climate-proof,” for its cool temperatures and proximity to fresh water. Word spread, and Californians fleeing wildfires soon arrived. The mayor of Buffalo, New York, has deemed his city a “climate refuge” for similar reasons. Scientists have also nodded at places like Vermont and Portland, Oregon.
At the same time, many of these forecasters readily admit that no place is immune from the effects of climate change. It’s more about picking your poison. Duluth may not be at great risk of dangerous heat waves, but it is already seeing more frequent, intense storms. The city sits on the western tip of Lake Superior, which is one of the fastest-warming lakes in the world. The shoreline is eroding from floods, eating away at properties and tourist destinations.
The unprecedented heatwave in the Pacific Northwest in 2021 that melted power lines, caused roads to buckle, and killed hundreds of people shattered any illusion of the region as a climate paradise — even taking scientists by surprise. There was a similar reaction when a heat wave smashed records in the typically water-logged U.K. last year.
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The current wildfires in Quebec are also upending these narratives. Buffalo might not see a wildfire any time soon, but as I write this, the city’s AQI is nearly at an “unhealthy” 200, according to AirNow, the U.S. air quality index. Burlington, Vermont, is looking better, but saw a spike up to 135 last night, which is considered “unhealthy for sensitive groups.”
Marshall Burke, a Stanford climate economist, told my colleague Robinson Meyer that he’s reconsidering his usual pitch about the effects of global warming. In the past, he said, he’s posited that wildfire smoke, rather than extreme heat, will be the main way that people on the West Coast encounter climate change. “I would not have told that story for you guys on the East Coast,” he said. “And this is still one very historic event, so I’m not ready to tell that story, but I’m going to draw the boundary a little wider next time I give a talk on this.”
We don’t yet know the degree to which the wildfires raging in Canada right now are connected to anthropogenic climate change. In the West, it’s well established that the increased severity of fires is being driven, in part, by climate change-fueled drought and aridification. That could be playing a role in the current fires burning in Western Canada.
But the causes of wildfire are complex. Quebec, where many of the fires affecting the northeast are currently raging, is not in drought. It has had a particularly warm spring, though that could be due to natural variability rather than climate change. Ellen Whitman, a research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service, told Reuters that downed trees from a recent hurricane and a pest outbreak may have also fueled the fires.
One reason the fires have gotten so bad is clear: The country’s resources are stretched thin. There are more than 400 active fires across Canada right now. A record amount of land has burned, and it’s not even summer yet. A CBC segment titled “What's behind Quebec's 'unprecedented' forest fire season?” reported that the province’s fire fighting agency has been forced “to leave most of them to burn out of control.”
I don’t know whether this week’s smoky skies could become a “new normal” in places like New York City. But that flight response is probably only going to become a more familiar feeling, perhaps one you'll need to learn to sit with, no matter where you are.