This is almost certainly the hottest year on record, and it seems to be fire season somewhere just about every day.
Experts tell us that the world has always experienced fire year-round. The difference now is that these fires are a lot harder to ignore.
So far this year, wildfires have sent 2,020 megatons of carbon into the atmosphere, according to data from Europe’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service. That’s more than what Russia, the world’s third-largest emitter in 2021, behind the U.S. and China, produced that year.
Globally, this year’s fires are still smaller than those in 2015, when the El Niño climate pattern fueled blazes around the world. But they have been extraordinary in many ways.
Emissions estimates from wildfires in Australia so far this year are the worst in over a decade. A blaze in Greece was the biggest ever recorded in Europe. And as my colleague David Wallace-Wells reported, more than half of the world’s countries could fit inside the area that was burned in the Canadian wilderness this year.
There is a larger trend at play. Researchers from the World Resources Institute, an environmental research organization, calculated earlier this year that forest fires are burning nearly twice as much tree cover today as they were 20 years ago.
“We know the risk is increasing because of climate change,” said Mark Parrington, a wildfire expert at the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service. A warmer planet means drier and hotter conditions, he added, which fuel “very large, persistent wildfires.”
No one’s emissions
Canada’s wildfires so far this year have sent almost as much carbon into the atmosphere as what the whole country reported emitting in 2021. But Canada doesn’t count those emissions in its official tally. No country does.
Nations are following guidance designed in the late 1990s that considered wildfires to be a natural phenomenon beyond human control, like volcanoes.
The thinking was that wildfires were part of a natural carbon cycle. Forests that burned now would grow back later, sucking carbon from the atmosphere back into trees.
But climate change is changing that equation.
“We are seeing increasing evidence of fires departing the natural range of historical variability being more frequent, more intense, and larger,” David Bowman, who researches fire at the University of Tasmania, told me in an email.
That means forests in some regions that were once carbon sinks are now becoming sources of greenhouse gases.
Breaking out human causes from natural processes is an enormously complex endeavor.
“The question is the degree of departure from historical baselines that may or may not include Indigenous fire management,” Bowman said.
Some researchers are pushing for a change in the way emissions are measured. In 2021, A group of Brazilian scientists wrote a letter to Nature calling for the inclusion of fires, and other forms of forest degradation, in their country’s emissions tally.
Increasingly dire fires are not beyond our control. Indonesia and Brazil are enacting much more stringent environmental protection policies that seem to be contributing to a reduction in deforestation. Fewer dead trees mean less fuel for wildfires.
Southeast Asia and the Amazon were expected to have enormous fire seasons, partly because of the El Niño climate pattern, which usually dries up vegetation in those regions. Though there are fires raging, there have so far been fewer than many experts expected.
Tracking and reporting forest-fire emissions, Bowman said, could help the world come to grips with the situation, “rather than fatalistically accepting fires are beyond control.”
The catalytic converter crime wave
Catalytic converters, which strip out polluting compounds from automobile exhaust, are a success story in environmental technology. But the cutthroat market for the rare metals that they contain has led to a violent, billion-dollar epidemic of catalytic converter thefts.
In 1970, as concern mounted over worsening air quality, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, which included a provision requiring all vehicles manufactured after 1975 to sharply reduce pollutants.
Researchers at a New Jersey company realized that platinum group metals could catalyze, or convert, unburned hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides into less harmful compounds. They coated a ceramic honeycomb screen with a thin layer of platinum, palladium and rhodium — three of the earth’s rarest, most expensive metals, known as platinum group metals — and placed it inside a metal container through which the engine exhaust passed.
“It stands as one of the greatest technological interventions to protect the environment in history,” said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization.
The precious metals are recyclable. A single converter contains only a small amount, but millions end up in scrapyards every year. A thriving underground network of thieves has also taken root. Roughly 600,000 devices, sometimes known as cats or autocats, were swiped last year.
A Times investigation found that the stolen devices pass through middlemen, smelters and refineries in the United States and overseas. Along the way, their provenance becomes opaque, lending plausible deniability to beneficiaries of the thefts.
—Walt Bogdanich Isak E. Hüllert Eli Tan
Other climate news
The weather report
A storm system unleashed up to 10 inches of heavy rainfall over parts of southeastern Florida and cut power to thousands of people this week. The storm eased early on Thursday, and moved east, away from the coast.
A confluence of storm systems that developed in the Gulf of Mexico and off the east coast of Florida spawned the severe weather. It brought five to eight inches of rain to the Miami area starting early Wednesday and continuing through the night.
Schools were closed on Thursday in Broward County, which includes Fort Lauderdale. Power outages spread across the region, with Florida Power & Light reporting early on Thursday that there were more than 59,000 power outages in Miami-Dade County, more than 24,000 outages in Broward County and 21,000 in Palm Beach County.
Wind gusts of up to 60 miles per hour in coastal areas of those three counties prompted warnings through Thursday afternoon, meteorologists said.