By Dylan Lewis
It began with a hazy day and quickly became an apocalyptic scene. This past June, Philadelphia was filled with smoke due to wildfires in Canada. The air quality index rose to hazardous levels making it unsafe to breathe the air, requiring citizens to mask up. After several days the dust settled, and it all was over. Or so we thought…last week, the smoke returned, making the air dangerous once more.
This phenomenon is not an isolated incident but rather a symptom of the ongoing climate crisis. Dr. Gregory Jenkins, professor of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science, Geography, and African Studies at Penn State, joined Dr. Aaron Smith on ecoWURD to dissect the causes behind the smoke.
“Canada normally has its wildfire season. It starts around June and goes through October. Normally we never get smoke down in these parts from Canada, but Canada’s been very dry this year. We had very little snow last winter, so the the forests were ready for fire,” said Jenkins. The unusually dry conditions, combined with a rare southward-moving weather pattern, created a scenario in which the fires impacted Philadelphia.
The smoke is not just unsettling to see, but it’s a health risk. Allison Crimmins, director of the Fifth National Climate Assessment, joined ecoWURD to explain the health risks associated with the smoke. “Exposure to smoke can be harmful to all of our health. It can definitely aggravate things like asthma or COPD or other respiratory problems. […] The way that it does that is that smoke contains a really small particulate matter. It’s PM 2.5, which means particulate matter that’s the size of 2.5 microns, and that’s about 30 times smaller than the width of a strand of hair. And those particles can get really down deep into your lungs or even into your bloodstream,” said Crimmins. While wearing a KN95 mask can protect you from the smoke, it’s not a solution to the ultimate problem.
Climate resilience involves developing plans for the climate crisis so that especially vulnerable populations are protected. It promotes human adaptation to the changing environment versus us trying to make the climate adapt to us. Genevieve LaMarr LaMee and Carolyn Moseley are both key players at the Office of Sustainability. They joined ecoWURD interim host Dylan Lewis to talk about the smoke and how it’s connected to climate resilience. “Some things we may not have control over, but those things that we do have control over, such as the built-out environment and the emissions and just new ways of doing things to try to get our arms around this issue. But years from now, it might look like Armageddon, you know? And we don’t wanna do that. We want everyone from generations to come to enjoy the environment, as you and I have experienced it,” said Moseley.
The smoke foreshadows a dystopian future. New York saw a haze so strong the sky was painted red. The sky was less dramatic in Philly, but this could be indicative of dwindling blue skies across the planet. In some places throughout the world and our country, there are days when a clear sky is rare. However, a vibrant planet is still possible. To preserve the Earth for future generations, we must develop systemic solutions, prioritize climate resilience, foster sustainable practices and cherish the beauty of the natural world.