Drought and extreme rainfall, both exacerbated by climate change, are increasing air pollution and landslide risks, compounding the impacts of continued extraction and combustion of fossil fuels. As drought conditions in the U.S. push east, wildfires are following. Hundreds of thousands of acres have burned in Colorado and Texas in the last few weeks alone, and on Tuesday red flag warnings covered nearly 10 million people across multiple Plains states while fires burned southeast of Birmingham, Alabama.
New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences finds dangerous particulate pollution (also known as PM2.5) from wildfires will increase regardless of emissions reductions. Without reductions, air pollution could triple, with extremes in fire and resulting pollution of 2017-2020 occurring every 3-5 years. Extreme precipitation is also increasing due to climate change, thus increasing risks of dangerous landslides. Longer and more extreme wildfire seasons, however, are compounding the danger by incinerating the vegetation that holds mountainside soil in place during heavy rains, even years after the burn.
In the aftermath there’s “hydrophobicity” that prevents water from heavy rains from being absorbed, Cara Farr of the US Forest Service explained to the Atlantic. “When the fires burn super, super hot, oils and other chemicals in your vegetation leave almost a kind of plastic-wrap layer on the soil.” (Drought and wildfire risks: CNN; Red flag warnings: Washington Post $, CNN; Alabama: AP; Wildfire pollution: Inside Climate News, Yale Climate Connections; Landslide risks: The Atlantic; Climate Signals background: Drought, Wildfires, Extreme precipitation increase)