Jennifer Ng 0:08
Like civil disobedience is one of the most important tools that we have, because we aren't gonna get anywhere by following the rules that are already in place. So we kind of have to break rules.
You just heard a snippet from last year's climate strike here in Portland held exactly a year ago.
Molly Lowney 0:34
We were both there as photographers for the Beacon. It was one of the coolest experiences for me as a photojournalist. There were about 6000 people there that day, all together in solidarity to demand action on climate change.
Jennifer Ng 0:49
Flash forward a year to 2020. We're in the middle of a global pandemic, attending online classes. I can't even imagine being in a gathering of more than like, 20 people anymore.
Molly Lowney 1:01
Yeah. 2020 really has it all: a global pandemic, a major US election, and wildfires raging along the west coast of the United States.
Jennifer Ng 1:11
We're both Californians. So while these fires aren't anything new or surprising to us by any means they still hit really close to home.
Molly Lowney 1:19
Oregon and parts of Washington are also dealing with fires right now too. And even where the flames aren't burning, smoke and ash are causing air quality problems miles away.
Jennifer Ng 1:30
Even though day to day life as we know it is wildly different from where we were a year ago, climate change is still a major issue and these fires are just one of the signs that climate change is already changing our lives.
Molly Lowney 1:50
Hello, and welcome to What on Earth a podcast by the Beacon. I'm Molly Lowney.
Jennifer Ng 1:56
And I'm Jennifer Ng, and this is the podcast where we look at current events through the lens of climate change and environmental issues.
Molly Lowney 2:03
In this episode, we'll be breaking down climate change and taking a look at how the recent West Coast wildfires fit into that picture.
Jennifer Ng 2:12
We're here with Dr. Delcambre from the Environmental Science Department. Thank you so much for joining us today. Would you like to introduce yourself a little bit?
Sharon Delcambre 2:20
Sure. Thank you so much for having me. My name is Sharon Delcambre. And I am a visiting instructor in the Environmental Studies Department. My background is in atmospheric and oceanic science. So that would be weather and climate. And yeah, I'm just really excited to be here with you guys.
Molly Lowney 2:39
Thank you. Alright, so we're just gonna start off by setting like a foundation of understanding what climate change is before we kind of zero in on the fires. So would you be able to give us kind of a climate 101, like a definition of climate change for someone who maybe hasn't studied it before, doesn't have the greatest understanding of it?
Sharon Delcambre 3:01
Sure. The first thing that's important to know is just the difference between weather and climate because this is something that is easily confusing. So whether we're talking about the weather, we all know like we go outside, and we're asking, what's the weather for today? So that would be the current state of the world around us. Usually the atmosphere think how hot it is, how cold it is, is it raining? Is it windy, but then we're talking about climate, we're talking about a long term picture of the earth system. So you can think of it as the average weather of a place. So if I was thinking about the climate of Portland, Oregon, for example, I would think of a place that tends to be warm and fairly dry in the summer, and cool and rainy in the winter. And so in order to get a good picture of climate, we're looking at about a 30 year time span, at least. And climate can even extend up to millions and really billions of years. When we're talking about climate change, we're talking about how the average conditions of a place are changing over time. And so it's really hard to notice this in our day to day life. Because we're very attuned to noticing the weather and the short term changes, you know, to actually record a change in the climate, we have to look at changes that are happening over decades to centuries. But we have noticed that our climate around the Earth is changing. And scientists have figured out that this is because of because of humans. And so although there is always some level of underlying natural climate change is happening without humans, humans are really having an outsized contribution to the effects on climate. And this is primarily because humans are combusting a lot of fossil fuels producing greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. Also because of how we're changing the land through agriculture and deforestation, and then a bunch of other smaller things as well. And what happens is when these changes happen to, you know, the burning of fossil fuels are the changes to the land. And these greenhouse gases end up in the atmosphere, the greenhouse gases are causing the atmosphere to warm up. And then through that warming, that has trickle down effects to the entire rest of the earth system. And so it can cause you know, most of the Earth is warming. And we have experienced already about a one degree Celsius temperature rise across the globe, more in some places less than other places, but on average about one degree, and then we've also experienced many other cascading effects. And so like in the ocean, we see things like ocean acidification happening, because of the carbon dioxide, we see changes to our ocean currents and our ocean saltiness levels, we see land surface changes, like changes in the distribution of vegetation, for example, where, you know, as temperatures change on land, to habitats change in animals are changing where they live. And, you know, trees are moving upslope in the mountains to where the temperatures are a little cooler. And we see changes to weather patterns. And I mean, there's just a lot of changes that we're seeing. And the key is that these are not just one year, one extreme season one extreme weather events, but there are changes that we're consistently seeing over decades. And we can model them using computer models. And we see that they're consistent with our theoretical models of what we think should happen. And we see them continuing and amplifying in the future. So a lot of times you hear it called global warming, which is referring to the increasing temperature in the atmosphere. But then you also hear it called climate change, which is referring to the more holistic picture of how the entire Earth system is changing in response to these greenhouse gases.
Jennifer Ng 6:50
There's many impacts of climate change. We are seeing icebergs melting and sea level rise, but wildfires, these wildfires that are currently spreading across the West Coast are also an impact of climate change. Can you talk about how these wildfires are connected to climate change?
Sharon Delcambre 7:11
Yeah, so wildfires are really interesting, because they're both a natural part of our Western ecosystem and they're also influenced by how people use forests, and then they're also influenced by climate change. So right now, in the news, I feel like I'm hearing a lot of arguments about like, is, are these wildfires caused by humans, or forest management or climate change? Or it's just a natural part of the ecosystem? And the answer is really all of the above. And it also is very dependent on exactly where you are in which type of forest you're talking about. Now, I am not an expert on forest. So I can't really speak to exactly how each individual forest will react. But I can kind of tell you the different components that we think about when we think about wildfires. So first of all, you know, you need to have fuel for your fire. And so, you know, some forests have more fuel available than other forests. So for example, here in Oregon, on the east side of the Cascades, we have forests that typically burn more often. And like every decade or so there is a fire. And so in those fires have been suppressed a little bit by humans over the past few decades, or, you know, 50 years or so. And so now on the east side of the Cascades, they're working on adding in a lot more of these like thinning projects and controlled burning projects, to try to decrease the amount of fuel available so that we won't have these like giant fires, because having small fires is a natural part of that ecosystem. But humans have not let them burn. And so there's like a lot of fuel accumulated in those forests. On the west side of the Cascades where we're located. These are really lush, old growth forests that we think of as rain forests, basically. And they have rarely burned. And so burning is just not as much a part of that habitat historically, because it's such a diverse forest with many different species of trees, it's a lot wetter. And typically when a fire starts on the west side of the Cascades, it's only going to burn upward because also fires tend to burn up slope because you know, think hot air rises. And so they tend to burn up toward the top of the mountain and maybe along the ridge line, but usually not down into the valleys, which is where we've seen them, you know, this month, and so those areas do have a lot of available fuel, but typically haven't haven't had very many fires there. And there's some places where we haven't seen fires for thousands of years in certain spots. And it's a very diverse forest. So again, you kind of would have to be like a forest expert to really speak to each individual fire that's burning. And I know California is even different than Oregon though each place you go has a little bit of a different history like typical forest management practices. So that's kind of the first piece of it. The second piece is that even if you have a lot of fuel available, it has to be ready to burn. And so I've seen a lot of people using this analogy of like, if you're camping, would you ever start a fire in with wet logs on your campfire? No, like, that doesn't work very well. And so the hotter and drier the conditions, the more likely fires will be able to start and the more likely they'll be able to spread and become larger fires. So that's the real big link with climate change is that with climate change in the northwest, we expect that over time, our summers are going to get hotter and drier. And this month, for example, the Northwest for much of the region is in a extreme drought. That's what they call it, an extreme drought for this month, and so we have hot, we have dry conditions available already. And so that's where climate change comes in that if we expect to see our summers get hotter and drier, then this would just make our fuel more ready to burn. And so we saw that all this fuel was just available and dry. And so when scientists have studied the fire season out west, they have discovered that, based upon our changing climate, we expect fires to happen more often and more of our area to get burned as time goes on. So that's the direct link to climate. The other interesting thing that happened this time around is that we had a very unusual weather event that also came on top of these, you know, forest management and climate impacts to create the perfect setup for really big fires. And so we had these really strong easterly winds. So we had winds moving from east to west, basically blowing that that hot, dry air from the, you know, the desert side of the Cascades into the Willamette Valley side of the Cascades, kind of like an extra push of weather that made these fires not only have more, you know, more dryness available to them low humidities, but also made them move really fast, faster than fire crews could really work to contain them. And so because of these extremely hot winds, we saw fires that were moving, you know, the sparks, basically from the fire are moving, you know, a mile or more beyond the actual fire itself. And so that makes it really hard to work to contain a fire when it's just moving so quickly. So that's why we saw people just basically trying to get out of the way of the fire. And then once the winds died down midweek last week, then we saw the crews really starting to go in and try to work with the fire to contain it. And we still see that most of these fires are not contained at this point, like maybe 2% 10% 20% contained, even about a week after the winds have died down. That was a weather event that kind of came on top of our dry in our dry climate and on top of our questions about how we manage our forests properly, to kind of create this perfect setup for fires.
Molly Lowney 13:04
Would you be able to talk about the weather event that kind of kicked off the California fires? I don't know if you're as familiar with it, but that was a really interesting kind of confluence of conditions that happened out here. In terms of lightning and winds.
Sharon Delcambre 13:19
I have to admit, I haven't paid as close attention to the California fires as in Oregon, just because I'm located here right now. But I will say it's in a lot of ways it's very similar in terms of the conditions in California that can cause fires, which is, you know, hot, dry conditions available fuel to burn, and then, you know, the thing we didn't really talk about is you need a spark, you need some sort of spark to start a fire historically, this is lightning that has started most of our, you know, natural fires in our ecosystems where lightning will tend to spark it. And and just to quickly talk about Oregon one more time before I answer your question. In Oregon, you know that lightning is usually happening up also near the top of the mountains. And so that's also why the fires tend to be up toward the top of the, the mountain range as opposed to down in the valley, because that's where the lightning tends to be. And that that would really go for any topographic kind of location where you have a peak because that's where lightning is most likely to be. At least out west here. And so yeah, so that's part of it. And then the other thing is when you have these winds, which just like in Oregon and California we have wind's blowing, you know, from east to west kind of down slope. And as wind moves down slope, it also gets hotter and drier as it's moving down the slope. And that's just come some thermodynamics of how the air works. When you move down slope The air is moving from you know, it's coming like out of a desert, moving down slope getting extremely hot and dry. And those like are those Santa Ana winds we talk about sometimes is an example of something like this and then as their moving really quickly, they also can take down power lines, which is also another big way that fires are starting, because the power lines have electricity, and they can provide that spark that starts the fire. And so there's a lot of things that can start a fire. You know, we see a lot of accidental fire starts, like, you know, the Eagle Creek Fire a few years back was started by, you know, kids with some firecrackers, you know, so there could be more like accidental fire starts. And there can be lightning and then, of course, the power lines. And it's always interesting, because this all happens in this really hot time of year also, where our electrical grid is really stressed, because everyone's trying to like run their AC at the same time. So there's also some elements of it that's related. And you know, and again, I'm not totally sure exactly how this works. But I know that people have talked a lot about how if we could modernize our electrical grid, this also would be less likely. But I do know, in California, for example, they were doing those rolling blackouts, to try to conserve, not conserve energy, but to have enough energy for people who needed it. I know here in Oregon, they had talked about turning off electricity to certain places to prevent wildfires, when they knew that, you know, they knew the winds were coming. So there is some element with these power lines that's associated with the fires. And in different places, it might look a little different how that works. Overall, California is like much the same in terms of for every fire, you need fuel, you need hot, dry air, and then you need some sort of start for the fire, whether that's human or nature, starting the fire.
Jennifer Ng 16:38
With these fires, it's been bad air quality everywhere due to the smoke and the ash and the government has been releasing, you know, air quality advisories. Can you talk a little bit about what this what the AQI means? What is being calculated with that?
Sharon Delcambre 16:59
Yeah, so the AQI is just a measure of, like overall air quality. And so it takes into account a number of different pollutants in the air that can, you know, be harmful to our health. One of the biggest ones is the PM2.5. So that's basically it's particulate matter that's suspended in the air. So like smoke would basically, you know, smoke is solid particles that are suspended in the air. And so when we breathe them in, that's really harmful to our respiratory system and then to our entire body. In Portland for the past week, we've had AQI values that are extremely high, the highest in the world, basically, up even above the scale, which goes up to 500. And so we've seen them above 500, and number of days. And so this is basically like the wildfire smoke, we're just sitting here breathing it in. And it's really bad for our health. And that's why, you know, the advisories are saying, stay inside, you know, kind of shut your house up, filter your air, if possible. Don't do any exercise or things that cause you to breathe heavily. So all those types of things, because the air quality is so low, that if you are breathing it in too much it can be really harmful for your health. And we do expect that the air should clear here and the next couple of days. And so we've been kind of waiting for that to happen. And we've just been stuck with this air pattern that we call an inversion, which is basically where normally it's warmest at the ground. And then as you go up in the atmosphere, it gets cooler. And in an inversion, we have the opposite thing happening where it's a little cooler at the ground. And as you go up, it gets warmer. And an inversion is a pattern that makes the atmosphere kind of it's really stable thermodynamically. And you can think of it as like a cap on the atmosphere, like there's like a lid on it. And so the air can't escape out of that inversion. And so because we've been stuck with this pattern, the smoke is just all stuck under this cap. And the air is not really mixing. And so we've been waiting to get some weather system to come through that will mix up the atmosphere. And so it's hopeful that like today or tomorrow, we should actually finally get a low pressure system that will kind of move through and mix up the atmosphere that would enable the smoke to vent out of our region, because it gets trapped here in the valley in between the mountains, there's just nowhere for it to really go until we can mix up the atmosphere a little bit. So we're hoping we can do that and spread the smoke downstream to some other people really mostly just hope that we can disperse it. Also with rain. Rain can help smoke settle out of the atmosphere, because the smoke is used to help create the raindrops. And so through that process, we can also help it settle out and just be gone.
Molly Lowney 19:51
So what exactly happens to smoke when it clears? Does it migrate does it dissipate or break down like what exactly is happening when your air quality improves?
Sharon Delcambre 20:02
Yeah, well, I mean, the smoke, it's just, you know, if you imagine like the ash from your campfire, it's just like that it's little solid particles, so it doesn't ever really go away per se. But it does, you know, it can either basically settle out of the atmosphere, meaning it could well, you know, fall to the ground, and then it'll just be sitting on the ground, or it can dilute and basically be spread over a larger distance, or it can just move to a different place. So we've actually seen the plume of smoke gradually moving around the world, you know, toward the east. So they've seen smoke measurements in the Midwest, and they expect it to kind of travel all the way around the globe. But as it travels, it does tend to dilute and mix with the other air so that overall, you'd have a lower concentration of particulate matter in your air. And you wouldn't notice it would look more like a small haze or it might be higher up in the atmosphere and not as close to the surface. But eventually, since it is a solid, it will settle out in rain rainfalls a really effective way to get rid of air pollution. Because the, you know, the the pollution can actually make up the raindrop. And so we call it the cloud condensation nuclei, it's like the little speck in the middle of the raindrop that it condenses on and so smoke can, you know, are dust particles, these little particulate matter, they can actually be that cloud condensation nuclei and settled out and, you know, eventually, that's just part of the decomposition process. If you think of the forest, right, you have like your trees, and when the trees are burning, you know, that's combustion, just like what's coming out of your car, except a little little different. And so basically, that carbon is then returned back down to the soil, where it can then kind of fuel the next, the next iteration of plant life. So it is like, you know, in a natural forest ecosystem, the smoke from fire goes back to the soil helps to grow new trees. It's just a, you know, part of that carbon cycle.
Jennifer Ng 22:13
What kind of what happens now, now that millions of acres have been burned in the last few weeks alone? What does that mean for fire season next year?
Sharon Delcambre 22:24
Well, I guess it's hard for me to say what it means for fire season next year. One thing I do know is that this winter will have to be very much on the lookout for landslides. That's usually a common secondary hazard that comes out of a big wildfire season. Because trees provides stability for slopes. And so, you know, throughout the Northwest in California, we're just going to be watching for any heavy rainfall event watching for, you know, risk for landslides. And it'll just depend on the winter we have. And each location has a different percentage of forest burned. The landslide hazard is a big one for this winter. In terms of next year, yeah, we still have a backlog of fuel in our forests, all over the Northwest and we still have humans living very much in in within the forests. And so and we also still have climate change. And so, you know, we'll see climate we think of over a long term. So we can't say that next year will be necessarily as hot and dry as this year, but I would say that, you know, as climate warms, this type of a setup for fire activity is more and more common, and is something that we should expect to be happening more and more often. I don't know if next year will look like this year. But I know that many of the following years that come would look like this year in terms of having that hot, dry air and the fuel being all dried out and ready to burn. We can't control that even with our one degree of warming, I mean, that's just going to be happening, we can control it getting even worse than now that's something you know, we still have some power to rein in climate change a little bit. And so like right now, we're pretty much committed to a two degree Celsius warming, we're currently at about one degree. So we're pretty much committed to two, although we could maybe like kind of hit two and then pull it back to one and a half Still, if we can kind of you know, really be aggressive in our tactics to mitigate climate change. That being said, fixing climate change or trying to mitigate climate change would be a big part of, you know, moving forward. But it's important to know that the conditions we're seeing now, we are pretty much committed to for the future. And so the next thing we can also work on is really funding our people who are managing our forests and making sure that they have the resources they need, and that we're supporting them and making good decisions with our forests based on the history of our forests, the current state as well as what how they're expected to change with climate change. We also see things like with climate change, our forests are more vulnerable to disease and to pests and any weak yet, you know, as you might know, if you ever had a garden, like if your plant is a little bit diseased or a little bit, you know, under watered or something, it's going to be really vulnerable to any other stress that comes into it. And so same with our forests, if our forests are weakened by pests, and then a fire comes into it, those trees are not going to be as resilient in the face of that fire and so basically, any angle we can attack the problem from will be beneficial. But there is some level of, you know, fire risk that we're just already committed to, because climate change is already here. So we just don't want it to get even worse than it is now.
Molly Lowney 25:48
I guess do you have any further advice on like individual preparedness for this one degree warming that we've committed to if you live on the West Coast?
Sharon Delcambre 26:00
Yeah, good question. I mean, it would depend a lot on where you live. But just being aware of your hazards, I think is first and foremost, really important. Staying in tune with, you know, your weather forecast, your fire forecast, whether you're in a drought. So all of these things, you know, even though these fires came up really quickly, we knew a couple days in advance that there was an extremely high fire risk. Forecasters from the National Weather Service, were saying this was the most extreme fire weather they had seen in the past 50 years in terms of just the weather conditions. And there were red flag warnings all throughout the entire Northwest. And so just being aware of that, and if you live in a place that's prone to fire, just making sure that you are, you know, paying attention so that you don't get caught at the last minute. I mean, and even that, like with these fires, there were people who were paying attention, and the fires just came up that quickly. So having an emergency plan, just like we talked about with our earthquake risk here, you know, making sure you have an evacuation plan, a meeting point, an emergency plan, a list of things you would take with you if you needed to evacuate. And so that's kind of where the fire specific and then for climate change more broadly, it's really hard, because it depends on exactly where you live, you know, trying to, I think, just stay, you know, stay attuned to your surroundings, it's always good advice. And I also just always like to throw in there that many of the same things we do to like fix or mitigate climate change will also have sort of a resilience component to them. And so a great example of this in Portland is something like, we expect that like Portland's gonna get hotter with climate change, right, like temperatures rising. And we see that some parts of Portland will tend to warm up more than other parts of the urban heat island effect. And a lot of this has to do with also where there's a lot of trees in Portland. So like East Portland is expected to warm up a lot more than West Portland. And so, which also happens to correlate with some of our, you know, lower income communities in Portland, of course, because these things always tend to be related. And so like, what's one thing we can do is we could try planting a lot of trees in East Portland, and this is part of our climate action plan here in Portland, that's just one facet to it. But you know, by planting the trees, that's actually one, you know, small step towards mitigating climate change, because trees are a carbon sink. But the trees also will be really helpful for people living in this hot part of Portland, because it's going to be adaptive for them, helping to like cool off them and buffer them from some of these impacts. One thing that Portland's actually really known for in our Climate Action Plan is really trying to think through solutions that have a kind of a multiplier effect. And so you know, and that not only are they helping to hopefully solve climate change, to help us adapt to climate change, but also hopefully, helping some of our more vulnerable populations first, in terms of helping people who would already be more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
Jennifer Ng 29:20
Yeah. Is there anything about that we didn't touch on that you would like to mention about like climate change, global warming fires? Kind of in general.
Sharon Delcambre 29:32
Well, the only thing I would still want to say which I say this a lot, so I think I sound like a broken record. But it's, you know, when we're talking about climate change, I think it's really easy to get completely depressed about it and to feel really hopeless and to feel like there is nothing that can be done about it. It's also really easy to feel like you as an individual are guilty like I'm not doing the right thing. You know, there's no way I could possibly do what I need to do to be a good steward of my climate. And I think it's important to just acknowledge all of those feelings that we have around climate change. And you know that it's okay to be depressed, it's okay to be angry or scared about it, because it is really scary and frustrating. And, you know, we each individually, you know, did not single handedly mastermind climate change, right. And we could go into a lot more detail on that. But, you know, it's important to remember that, that there is still time to fix this issue. And there are solutions available, that can work. And the solutions will fix not just one problem at a time, they'll fix multiple problems at a time. And so just like one impact of climate change will cause a cascade of negative effects. One solution to climate change should have a cascade of positive effects on our society. And so when we think and when we think about solutions to climate change, we often think about, you know, having to sacrifice something like I'm not going to be allowed to drive, I'm not going to be allowed to, you know, eat meat or something. But instead of trying to reframe it as thinking of it as a more just equitable society where we actually have better lives, through taking care of the planet and ourselves. Sure, there are individual things we can be doing. And there's also collective things that we need to be doing. But we need to we need to start working on them. Right away. So okay, so let's do it.
Jennifer Ng 31:40
Amazing. Yes, yes. As a last note, do you have any resources for people who are interested in learning more?
Sharon Delcambre 31:46
Well, for the for the more immediate stuff, I always strongly recommend the National Weather Service, and you can find them by weather.gov is their website. And you can type in your zip code, and it will give you your weather forecast, which First of all, I would also like to put a plug for their better weather forecast as being pretty much the best one out there for you. And secondly, they put out all the alerts. So from things like freezing rain in the winters, you know, snow, to, you know, heavy winds or, or fire weather, they're the ones putting out our air pollution alert. There's also this, I think it's called air now.gov is where the aq AI that air pollution index is located that you can look up, and they'll give you the real time, air quality at your location. And so you can see how healthy it is outside, where you're located. In terms of climate change, there's a lot of resources. So first of all, feel free to get in touch with me also, if you have more questions about this, and I'm happy to talk to anybody who wants to talk more about climate change or weather. But in terms of climate change, I feel like there's kind of like two sets of resources that people are most interested in first would be like individual things that they can do to stop climate change. And the second would be like, more policy level, like what can we be doing for the upper the more policy level approach? You know, my biggest recommendation is just to make sure that you are registered to vote, and that you are researching your candidates and vote for people that you think are going to, you know, work on climate change. If that's an issue that you care about that make sure you're voting get your friends and your family to vote. Talk to people about climate change, like, you know, we just, you know, we need to keep talking about it. I think that's a really important part of it. In terms of more specific solutions, the resource I always recommend is called Project drawdown and so I think it's drawdown.org. And they have a great ranking of solutions. So you can go there and just like check out what the top solutions are and see if any of them will work for you.
Molly Lowney 33:47
That's great. Well, I think that's all the questions that we have for you today. Thank you so much for answering all of them.
You can keep up with what on earth on Anchor.fm, Spotify and upbeacon.com. If you would like to submit a topic or questions for future episodes, go to upbeacon.com and click the story idea button on the right hand side of the page.
Jennifer Ng 34:18
Thank you for listening to this episode of What on Earth. Remember to keep asking questions
Molly Lowney 34:22
and keep wearing your masks. See you next time.
Jennifer Ng 34:28
Special thanks to Dr. Delcambre for appearing on this episode. This podcast is produced by The Beacon, hosted and produced by Molly Lowney and Jennifer Ng. Music is from freemusicarchive.org
Jennifer Ng is the Opinions Editor and a photographer for The Beacon. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Molly Lowney is a photographer for The Beacon. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Dr. Sharon Delcambre is a visiting instructor with the Environmental Studies department and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.