Driven by hot lightning sieges and dry winds, nearly 100 fires are burning across the western U.S. Flames are consuming homes, entire towns; 3.4 million acres swallowed whole. The sky mirrors the color of the red and orange flames.
This obscure watercolor painting that California has been living in is due to the fires creating pyrocumulonimbus clouds, which are also known as “fire thunderstorms.” These pyrocumulonimbus clouds launch smoke and soot into the atmospheric column like a rocket, 50,000 feet into the stratosphere. The heat caused winds to generate and carry smoke from the Sierra Nevadas to the coastlines and casted a layer of smoke across the sky that blocked out most of the sun, like a heavy-duty pair of sunglasses.
The smoke is the aftermath of the fire, lessened to particles which are typically either hydrocarbon molecules or soot. The carbon atoms in the air absorb and scatter the longer wavelength red hues rather than blue ones. The soot particles are absorbing the blue light that the sun casts towards Earth, enabling the red and oranges to bleed through, creating the ominous orange sky.
Except the orange sky is not the problem, the cause of the orange sky is the problem and it has been obscured by the fallout of photographs, articles, news coverage and political arguments. The real issue buried beneath it all is the fires.
Cities are being littered with ash; the regional air quality has been rated as a health hazard. 4,100 structures have been destroyed, 60,000 people have been forced to flee their homes and 25 people are dead. Significant amounts of pollutants are being cast into the air. Recent satellite readings taken over the course of the past week have shown high-altitude concentrations of carbon monoxide that are reported to be more than ten times higher than normal. Carbon monoxide can remain in the atmosphere for about a month and is easily transported across great distances. High above, carbon monoxide plays little influence on the air we breath but wind carrying it downward can be (and is) detrimental to air quality.
The National Weather Service reported that the plumes of smoke erupting from the flames tearing through the state are being carried up in the atmospheric jet stream and flushed across the United States. There is enough smoke to cloud the sun in parts of the East Coast.
The governor of California, Gavin Newsom, acknowledged that poor forest management over the past few decades has contributed to the wildfire’s intensity and severity in recent years. He also went on to say that the droughts and record-breaking heat waves were undeniable evidence that some of the extreme predictions about climate change are already coming true.
Last week, Donald Trump sat down and actively refused to acknowledge the effects that the climate crisis is inflicting on the state’s forest fires and attempted to highlight the need for better forest management to clear dead trees that could act as fuel. Wade Crowfoot, the secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, warned Trump that it was dangerous to ignore the science and “think its all about vegetation management.” Trump responded with, “It’ll start getting cooler. You just watch.”
The air is polluted, people are dying, California is on fire; we can’t just watch.