Facing the climate penalty

How climate change is hurting those who live in the West


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BOULDER, CO, USA - OCTOBER 18, 2020: A plume of wildfire smoke rises into the sky from the Left Hand Canyon just hours after the Left Hand Canyon fire broke out in Boulder, Colorado.
Joseph Gruber / Shutterstock.com

Colorado is no stranger to wildfires. Last year our state saw one of the most active fire seasons in history, with three of the largest wildfires on record and the destruction of hundreds of homes and widespread evacuations. With 100 total days of wildfire that traversed over 400,000 acres causing billions of dollars in damages, it’s no surprise that wildfires are getting worse as climate change leads to hotter, drier forests. 

Colorado temperatures are warming faster than the national average, with an increase of two degrees Fahrenheit in most cities, according to Climate Central. Moreover, increasing droughts and reduced snowpack are leading to warmer spring-like temperatures appearing earlier and earlier each season. 

To make matters worse, wildfires are not the only climate-related crisis Colorado is facing. Climate change has been affecting ground ozone levels for years now, causing acute health effects, particularly in children and those with predispositions. According to Dr. James L. Crooks, a Biostatistics and Bioinformatics researcher at National Jewish Health, “We in the west are having to contend with this sort of trifecta of climate impacts, extreme heat, wildfire smoke and ozone, all kind of at the same time and all partly driven by the same factors.” 

Dr. Crooks and his colleagues, Dr. Rachel Licker, Dr. Adrienne Hollis, and Dr. Brenda Ekwurzel, recently published a paper exploring the ozone climate penalty of increasing health issues along the Colorado Front Range. 

While wildfires and ozone concentration levels are both fueled by the ongoing climate crisis in the West, their relationship to one another is complicated. Ozone concentration levels are monitored year-round but are usually particularly bad from the months of May to October, which is similar to wildfire season. According to Dr. Crooks, “Ozone is formed from two types of gases, nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds. But the reaction that forms the ozone sort of accelerates in presence of heat and sunlight.” 

The summer months and dry heat are also catalysts for wildfires in the West to take off. Smoke from the wildfires can contain precursor gases that can combine to form ozone. That said, some days the smoke from the fires can increase ozone levels. 

However, “smoke also contains particles and when you have enough particles in the air it can reduce the sunlight reaching the ground. When that happens the ozone formation doesn’t go as fast. So on some days when you have really dark clouds of smoke, fires can actually suppress ozone formation,” states Dr. Crooks. 

Climate-related disasters like increasing ozone concentration and wildfires are being made worse by a combination of local factors, including emissions produced from cars and oil and gas development. Addressing climate change on a global basis could also help fix the ozone and raging wildfires on a local level. Reducing fossil fuel reliance could rapidly improve short-term air quality, and replacing finite resources with green energy could drastically fix long-term air quality. 

The EPA has national standards for ozone ambient air that are tightened every few years, making it harder and harder for states like Colorado to meet the standards. According to Dr. Crooks, Colorado hasn’t achieved the EPA’s standards since 2007. And the health consequences of living below the national standard are horrifying. 

According to Dr. Crooks, “Ozone is a gas and it’s very very reactive. So when you breathe it it tends to inflame your lungs. That can cause your chest to feel tight in people with chronic issues such as asthma or COPD. People with really severe respiratory disease can actually increase their risk of death.” 

Wildfire smoke also has numerous health consequences when people are continuously exposed. The smoke particles, especially if they’ve been in the air for a long time, pick up extra oxygen that reacts poorly with your lungs. The small particles get inside of your bloodstream and could potentially inflame your arteries and other organs in the body. 

The health consequences of these climate related issues primarily affect people living in low-income communities, which predominantly consist of people of color and children living below the poverty line. Factors such as proximity to highways and how tightly homes are sealed can cause more exposure to outside air pollutants. For children, research has shown that long-term exposure to particular pollution like wildfire smoke has negative impacts on cognitive development, IQ, risk of behavioral problems, and cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. 

According to Dr. Crooks, “There are certain specific biomes in the West that are transitioning from a forest biome to a more arid biome. That transition is happening very rapidly and the way that transition works out is through wildfires.” While some climate damage may be irreversible, it’s still up to us to slow these changes to prevent further damage to our environment.

The majority of children born in 2021 will be alive for the 22nd century. If change is not enacted now, decisively and swiftly, the generations growing up in this decade will face insurmountable issues. 

“We can’t keep passing the buck, the buck has to stop with us,” Dr. Crooks states. “We can’t impose the task of cleaning this up on the people that didn’t even cause this mess in the first place.”