This satellite photo taken Sept. 9, shows smoke, detected by the thickness of aerosol particles, from enormous wildfires on the West Coast spreading east to Maine and Canada’s Maritime provinces. Photo courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory

One morning last week while I was at the Unity park contemplating the high haze of smoke from wildfires burning 3,000 miles away, I started remembering a hot July night in Portland in the 1980s. Lightning was flickering behind storm clouds out beyond the Casco Bay islands. Thunder rumbled distantly. On the doorstep of my apartment on Munjoy Hill, I was trying to talk a friend out of committing suicide.

The lightning-lit horizon perfectly, eerily reflected the sense of doom transpiring on the doorstep. In the thunder echoed the anger, despair and paranoia my friend was having over his longtime girlfriend and an ocean of other troubles, some self-made, some random, some completely fictional.

We talked. He barely listened. No facts, no questions, no sympathy, no reassurances about things that didn’t actually happen seemed to make any difference. He’d drive off burning angry and desperate. I’d wait, hoping he came back. I felt helpless, useless and incompetent as a friend. Something could be done to prevent him killing himself, but what? All night this went on. Lightning glowed intermittently behind the clouds. It was a nightmare.

Thirty-five years later, my feelings about those wildfires out West are eerily similar to the ones I had on my doorstep that night in Portland. Something can be done about the conditions that are leading to the fires. Not magically wiped away, but alleviated. But what can I say to those who seem intent on self-destruction in place of even admitting climate change is happening? Barely listening to the mounting heat, drought, extreme weather, rising seas and fires.

My friend, at least, did not intend to take me down with him.

FIRES, HEAT, RISING SEAS

• As of this past weekend, more than 7,900 wildfires had burned over 3.4 million acres in California this year. More than 5,500 structures have been destroyed; at least 26 people have been killed; thousands are displaced from their homes; hundreds of thousands advised to evacuate. There is so much smoke it has blown across the continent and hazed over the sky in Maine. The fires are a direct result of increasingly drier summers, which are a result of rising temperatures, which are a result of greenhouse gas accumulation.

• Huge wildfires burned in Siberia again this summer, blanketing cities in smoke there, too. In just the two easternmost districts, more than 34.5 million acres had burned by mid-September. This year’s fires have created 35% more carbon dioxide than last year’s because melting peatlands are igniting and releasing carbon, creating more carbon dioxide that leads to more warming that leads to more melting and fires.

• In the Panatal, a drought-stricken wetland in South America, fires had burned 9,300 square miles by mid-September. Many of the fires were set to tend grazing land and got out of control.

• This summer was the hottest on record for the Northern Hemisphere, according to NOAA. June, July and August were 2.11 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average.

• Portland recorded its warmest summer on record this year, topping 2018 and 2016, according to WLBZ meteorologist Keith Carson. Caribou had its warmest summer ever. Bangor had its third-warmest summer ever.

• Phoenix tied its record for highest temperature ever in August, 117. Oakland, California, hit 100 degrees for the first time ever during the month of August. Needles, California, set an August record of 123. Sacramento, California, set an August record of 112.

• A study found that in a small section of Maryland’s coast, 2% of its farmland turned into tidal marshes between 2009 and 2017, one example of an effect of sea level rise that is happening globally.

• Another study estimated that if human greenhouse emissions continue at their present levels, by 2100 the meltwater from glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica could raise sea level as much as 15 inches globally.

• The World Wildlife Federation’s 2020 report says that populations of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles have dropped an average of 68% since 1970.

HOW WE’RE HANDLING IT

• On Aug. 13, President Trump’s EPA rolled back restrictions on how much methane can be leaked into the atmosphere from oil and gas drilling operations. Methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. It leaks into the atmosphere from wells, pipelines, fracking operations and storage tanks. Even some of the big oil companies supported the previous regulations.

• In July, the Bureau of Land Management released a report stating, among other things, that it had reduced royalties on hundreds of land leases to oil companies from 12.5% to 0.5%. Hundreds of the leases that received the royalty reductions are owned by political megadonors or have ties to senior Interior Department officials’ former clients.

• The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, one of Trump’s own agencies, stated in its report “Managing Climate Risk in the U.S. Financial System”: “A world racked by frequent and devastating shocks from climate change cannot sustain the fundamental conditions supporting our financial system. … The physical impacts of climate change are already affecting the United States, and over time, will likely touch virtually every sector and region of the country.”

• For nearly a month from mid-August to mid-September, President Trump did not mention the West Coast fires, except to approve disaster declarations for California on Aug. 23 and for Oregon on Sept. 11, and to tell a rally in Pennsylvania the fires are caused by unkempt forest floors.

• When asked what role climate change might play in the fires, Trump said, “It’s going to cool down.”

• Virtually no climate scientists think global warming is likely to slow for centuries.

The good news is that my friend is still alive and playing music. He figured it out.

Meanwhile, here in 2020, I still don’t know what facts, questions, acknowledgments of anger, or reassurances to make about things that aren’t actually happening versus things that are, to deter us from driving headlong into self-destruction by climate change. I don’t know. Vote. Please.

 

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected]. His book “A Backyard Book of Spiders in Maine” is available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.


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