It’s the day after New Year’s, and we’re just entering into 2018. In Times Square last night, according to the Associated Press, it was the second-coldest New Year’s celebration on record. The temperature was only 10 degrees Fahrenheit in New York City at midnight. (The coldest ball-drop festival was 100 years ago, in 1917, when it was only 1 degree.) In the Midwest, where I now sit in the early morning hours on January 1—wearing long underwear and wrapped in a blanket—the temperature is 12 below zero.
But it isn’t the cold I’m thinking about as 2018 dawns. It’s scorching heat and escalating “heat” of another kind that’s on my mind: the type that humanity will soon be suffering under.
Megafires—those that burn more than 100,000 acres—around the world are becoming more and more frequent. The Arctic will never be frozen again. And these and other results of climate change will only exacerbate inequality in the United States as time goes on.
So, it is the heat that I fear most today; not the cold.
While fire has always been a healthy part of forest ecosystems, in recent decades wildfires have grown hotter and larger. According to a 2015 U.S. Department of Agriculture and Forest Service report, the United States loses twice as many acres to fire as it did three decades ago, and that acreage may double or triple by midcentury. The six worst fire seasons recorded since 1960 occurred during the past 15 years. Before 1995, an average of one or fewer megafires occurred annually in the United States. Between 2005 and 2014, that number had jumped to nearly 10 a year. A record 10.1 million acres burned in the U.S. in 2015.
A large portion of the blame can be placed on climate change. Results published in a June 2016, Climate Central report stated that higher temperatures, shorter winters, earlier springs and reduced snowpack have lengthened the U.S. fire season by 105 days since 1970. In some regions, the fire season now lasts 300 days per year. More frequent and longer droughts—which create drier, hotter and windier summers—also have made forests more vulnerable to large, severe fires. Today, they can be so searing that they permanently destroy forests by killing seed sources, sterilizing soils and enabling invasive species, such as cheatgrass, to move in. In the American West, some forests may never come back.
Those megafires not only affect the landscape but animals, as well. For example, in the past two decades in the northeastern Cascades in California, Oregon and Washington state, a third of the habitat for endangered lynx has burned, reducing the region’s carrying capacity for female lynx to 27, down from 43 in 1996. Mountain lions, sage grouse, snowshoe hares and countless other wildlife species are confronting increasingly larger and hotter wildfires to their detriment.
But the West isn’t the only place feeling it. Across the Southeast, fires burned more than 150,000 acres during fall 2016.
The Arctic as we once knew it is gone.
That startling statement came in mid-December 2017 from a group of polar scientists who spoke at a New Orleans conference center that once provided shelter for thousands during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. That prompted some to note that the center was a fitting venue, since we are once again engaged in an existential gamble with the planet’s life-support system.
Until approximately a decade ago, the Arctic was coping with climate change, despite warming at roughly twice the rate of the planet as a whole. But in recent years, it’s undergone an abrupt change. The region is now heading toward an ice-free state, which will have wide-ranging ramifications for ecosystems, fisheries, national security, the stability of the global climate system and tourism. For example, the highest permafrost temperatures in Alaska on record occurred in 2017. If warming continues at the current rate, widespread thawing could begin in as few as 10 years, resulting in destruction of local infrastructures, such as buildings and roads, throughout the Northern Hemisphere.
However, the effects won’t only be felt locally or regionally. You will—and already are—feeling them, too. Thawing releases additional greenhouse gases that have been locked in the ice for generations. And a warming Arctic creates conditions where more extreme weather events show up in North America. A December 5, 2017, report published in the journal Science found a strong link between dwindling Arctic sea ice and an expanding risk of California drought.
In an annual report on the Arctic’s health, titled Arctic shows no sign of returning to reliably frozen region of recent past decades, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration coined a term: the “New Arctic.”
During the next 100 years in the United States, the temperature will rise 2 to 7 degrees. On June 30, 2017, a report examining the impacts of that fact—such as more frequent coastal storms, decreasing crop yields, rising crime, heat and cold-related deaths, higher energy demands and the declining abilities of people to work in the heat—was published in the journal Science. It concluded that areas in the South are especially at risk. Places that are already warm will be harmed much more than places that are cooler. Those warmer places also coincidentally happen to be places that are already poorer, so the net effect will be a transfer of wealth from South to North and from the poorer to the wealthier. Economic inequality between regions will worsen, and that could place our whole society in peril.
Today, wherever you are, like me you, too, may be experiencing colder-than-normal temperatures. But don’t be fooled. The heat is coming for us. And it’s going to require more of us than just taking off the long underwear and tossing off the blankets when the eve of a new year passes.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,