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On U.S. East Coast, smoky skies latest sign of a changing climate

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The news: This week, the East Coast of the United States is grappling with something that other places around the world are all too familiar with: wildfire smoke.

Fires raging across eastern Canada are choking the skies from Ottawa to New York to Washington and beyond with dangerous levels of smoke. More than 400 wildfires were burning in Canada on Thursday, according to the Canadian government — with most of them considered to be burning out of control, The New York Times reported

The novelty of New York City landmarks shrouded in a thick haze has dominated headlines in the United States the past few days — but it may not stay a novelty for long: Americans should start expecting more of these episodes thanks to climate change. 

“Many of us on the East Coast of the United States have largely been able to avoid or ignore negative climate change impacts in recent years,” noted Emily Nyrop, a climate change expert at Conservation International who is based in Boston. “But these last few days have starkly illuminated for many on the East Coast that none of us is immune from the effects of the change in climate.”

The big picture: Wildfires have made the news elsewhere in recent years, most memorably in Singapore to Sao Paulo, where thick haze turned day into dusk. In both those cases, fires that were intentionally set elsewhere to clear land went out of control, and weather conditions exacerbated by climate change made them worse than they would have been. 

Canada’s fires, on the other hand, reportedly were mostly caused by lightning. But the effects of climate change have made them especially bad this year: Record heat in Alberta, Quebec and Nova Scotia — along with record-breaking drought in the Canadian Atlantic region — have made the country’s dense forests a tinderbox. 

Cause for hope? Conservation International’s Nyrop sees a silver lining in the haze.

“While the negative effects we're seeing right now from climate change are sobering, what gives me hope is how rapidly everyone has adapted. People are fashioning facemasks for their dogs as well as themselves to go outside. People are making makeshift air purifiers out of box fans, and furnace filters. This latest climate crisis illuminates the resilience and creativity that we all have in the face of these types of changes.” 

“I am heartened by the fact that the drumbeat of climate change and its importance is getting louder and louder,” she continued. “The connection between the poor air quality on the East Coast and wildfires in Canada is a link that more and more people are making to the ultimate cause: climate change.”

What’s next: Conditions on the East Coast should improve slowly over the next few days, but it’s likely just a taste of what’s to come: The Canadian government has predicted higher-than-normal fire activity throughout this year, CBS News reported this week. 

Nyrop is hopeful that the fires are a wake-up call, propelling the issue of climate change into presidential platforms, companies’ strategic plans and governments’ budget considerations. 

“I believe that as a greater number of people directly experience the negative effects of climate change, and are able to connect those negative events to climate change itself, the importance and prioritization of this issue is going to exponentially increase,” she said. 

Bruno Vander Velde is the managing director of content at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Also, please consider supporting our critical work.