From Shaman’s Rock
By Jim Poling Sr.
Our spring and summer of smoke is being called abnormal. It’s not. It’s a new normal that scientists predict will become an even more normal part of our lives.
“This is our potential future,” Morgan Crowley, a Canadian Forest Service fire scientist, said in an interview with the Vox media service recently. “It’s real. It’s really important that we prepare for our future and find ways to reduce the effects on our vulnerable populations.”
This year already is the worst forest fire season in Canadian and North American history. Canada has suffered more than 3,000 forest fires since the end of March, burning about 20 million acres. And, we are not quite halfway through the fire season.
It’s going to get worse. More forest fires and more smoke clouding our skies and affecting our health will be a fact of life. We need to listen to, and act on, Ms. Crowley’s warning to prepare for the future and work on finding ways to protect vulnerable populations.
Changing climate is creating conditions that increase wildfire potential. Higher temperatures and increased wind have been drying out our forests, turning them into tinder boxes.
A key factor in recent forest fire history is something that the public has heard little about. It’s called VPD – vapour pressure deficit and is the difference between the amount of moisture actually in the air and the amount of moisture the air could hold.
When the air has much more room for moisture it sucks it out of trees and other plant growth. The larger the moisture deficit, the drier our forests become.
Drier forests don’t necessarily mean there will be more fires, but they definitely mean much drier material for a fire to burn. That’s why recent fires have been larger than usual and creating more smoke.
There is increasing concern about how wildfire smoke is affecting our health. Breathing in the smoke causes running noses, scratchy throats, irritated sinuses, coughs and headaches. The smoke causes more serious problems for people who suffer asthma, bronchitis, and pulmonary disease.
Wildfire smoke can be seen and smelled but it contains tiny toxic particulates that are invisible to the human eye. These particulates can be comprised of acids, sulphites, nitrates, soot, metals and other things can travel deep into the lungs and the bloodstream.
Some medical researchers suspect that breathing wildfire smoke can increase cancer rates – notably lung and brain cancers. They don’t have much solid evidence of that yet and say more study is needed.
There also are suspicions that wildfire smoke is more harmful to infants and also can affect developing fetuses.
New research published in the June issue of the journal Science of the Total Environment says smoke particulates from wildfires could cause 4,000 to 9,200 premature deaths a year in the U.S.
What has not received much study yet are the effects of wildfire smoke on our mental health.
The constant talk about smokey grey days and waking up to discover you can’t see the far shore of your lake can be stressful and create anxiety.
Some studies of general air pollution have found that bad air can cause unhappiness and depression. One study has said that air pollution is linked not just to depression and anxiety, but causes some functional changes in the brain.
Especially disturbing is a 2022 study that found wildfire smoke exposure during the school year lowered standardized test scores slightly.
Older studies of people affected by wildfire smoke in British Columbia and California found no increase in mental-health-related doctor visits or hospitalizations.
Today, however, psychologists are increasingly reporting patients reacting to natural disasters with feelings of loss and grief.
Global warming, drying climate despite wild rain storms and the smoke are triggering worries about the future. How long will this last? What’s next and will it be worse? All questions many of us have and which are questions that disturb our mental well-being.
“Climate change is a mental health issue,” says Nancy Piotrowski, a licensed psychologist representative for the American Psychological Association’s Society for Environmental, Population and Conservation Psychology.
So wildfire smoke is not just getting into our throats and eyes. It’s getting into our heads.