How Does Global Warming Pose a Public Health Threat in the Bay Area?

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Hi! Welcome to my page.

Overview: Changing Climate, Warming Temperatures

Climate change and global warming are linked to rising numbers of extreme weather events, and there’s no better example than the increasingly variable weather in California. Extreme weather specific to the region includes drought, storms, flooding, and wildfires. The average temperature has been steadily rising at a faster rate each decade. With high temperatures and fewer snowfall amounts, the state experienced severe drought from 2006 to 2009 and again from 2011 to 2014. Drought conditions continue to persist in 2021, albeit less severe (“Extreme Weather”). As for fire, it requires three conditions: “the right weather and climate conditions, plenty of burnable fuel, and a spark”(Borunda). Drought and overall low precipitation help create a fire-prone climate, prolonging the fire season over past years. Hot, windy weather, which is at its peak from mid-summer to November, increases the potential for widespread wildfires. Wildfires have grown in scale and intensity over the past decades due to these conditions. Furthermore, California’s dense forests packed with dry vegetation serve as kindling during fire season, also contributing to the risk of fire spread. Bioclimatologist Park Williams states, “This climate-change connection is straightforward: warmer temperatures dry out fuels. In areas with abundant and very dry fuels, all you need is a spark”(Fuller; Pierre-Louis and Schwartz). Though natural events, like lightning, have caused some fires, human activity has been the driving factor in the past decade. Based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s data gathered from 2000 to 2017, human negligence and human error spark approximately 85% (U.S. National Park Service). In 2018, a man who used a hammer next to dry vegetation contributed to the ignition of the second-largest fire in state history, the Mendocino Complex Fire. Pyrotechnics, which are firework-like devices, from a gender-reveal party started the 7,050-acre El Dorado Fire in 2020 (Covarrubias).

What effects does wildfire smoke have on our health?

Smoke and Locations of Wildfires in September 2020 (LA Times).
Amount of residents in California counties who experienced unhealthy or worse air quality (Carlsen, Audrey, et al).

In 2020, the amount and intensity of California’s wildfires set records. Fires burned through approximately 4.2 million acres across the state, leaving extensive wreckage in their wake (Krishnakumar and Kannan). The fire radiative power is the measurement of the fire’s radiant heat and smoke emissions, and the previous fire season reached record highs: over 3.5 million megawatts (Borunda). The accumulation of smoke from these fires worsened the air quality significantly in Bay Area counties, along with other California areas, throughout last year’s fire season. Bay Area residents experienced unhealthy or worse air quality, based on the Air Quality Index, sometimes up to days at a time. The data infographic above displays the growing numbers of people living in California who experience unhealthy levels of air pollution. Based on the graphic, 2020 is notable both in the extent of air pollution and amount of people affected (Carlsen, Audrey, et al).

The fine particle components of smoke pose a threat to human health. Their microscopic size allows these particles to reach the lung tissues. Common potential symptoms of wildfire smoke inhalation can include the following: 

Sneezing Phlegm
Coughing Wheezing
Congestion Trouble breathing
Burning eyes/eye irritation Chest Discomfort
Runny nose Headaches

Those with pre-existing lung or heart conditions, older adults, and pregnant women are at greater risk of developing symptoms. These vulnerable groups are also more likely to develop complications, such as worsening pulmonary or heart disease (CDC). Symptoms tend to resolve after the wildfires are extinguished and after air quality improves. There is insufficient research covering the long-term effects of exposure to smoke, but the potential for health risks is significant (Marks). 

Air Pollution Effects on Health (Climate Central). 

Inequities

Similar to other climate change issues, wildfires disproportionately impact low-income people and BIPOC communities. At the same time, the wealthiest people emit the most carbon. On a global scale, poor countries bear the brunt of climate change’s harmful effects (Emile-Geay). A 2018 study found that Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people are approximately 50% more vulnerable to wildfire. Environmental disasters are out of our control, right? However, “it is the social, political, and economic context that makes an environmental hazard become a disaster”(Davies, Ian P., et al). In other words, inequities lie in the degree of impact on different communities. Indigenous communities, for example, have historically been forced onto federal reservations located in fire-prone areas. Additionally, the financially secure can afford fire mitigation near their homes, such as brush removal. They can also afford protective resources, such as particulate masks and air cleaners. Moreover, Californian low-income, immigrant, and rural communities have less access to rebuilding or fire safety resources. After the 2017 Sonoma County fires, which destroyed homes, rental housing prices were hiked up, impacting these marginalized communities. (Davies, Ian P., et al).

For Now Response

  • Apply a solution approach that considers the factors that increase wildfire vulnerability. 
  • Petition governmental management departments to collaborate with community-based organizations to address inequities. 
  • Establish further protections for victims of wildfire damage. 
  • Invest in climate change initiatives.
  • Personally, decrease your carbon footprint (i.e: managing your consumerism, finding sustainable alternatives, etc). 

Request for Feedback

Thanks for checking out my project! If you feel inclined, please comment on any feedback you have, and/or answer the following questions:

  1. Have any extreme weather events occurred near to where you live, or do you recall hearing about any? How do you think these events intersect with climate change?
  2. Do you intend to lessen your carbon footprint, or what steps are you already taking? 
  3. How do you think we can address climate change in a way that also addresses inequality?

Works Cited

2 Comments

2 comments

  1. Isabella Sy

    Hi Alison! I loved your project. Being from the Bay Area, I found your research to be extremely interesting and informative. I now live in New Mexico and, to answer your question, we do not get very many extreme weather events. However, when there are wildfires in states around us, you can see the affects and it is not always safe to go outdoors. I would like to lessen my carbon footprint and one step that I have taken to do this is being vegetarian. I have read that being vegetarian significantly helps climate change, which I think is great and it is just icing on the cake for me because I had originally gone vegetarian back when I was very young to help save the lives of animals. Now, I am working on taking the next steps in the process of lessoning my carbon footprint and trying to manage my consumerism. Your last question is a tricky one. I agree that addressing climate change a way that also addresses inequality is important, but it is difficult to say how we can do this. I think that a wealth cap would be very beneficial to our society. There is no point in constantly receiving money when you already have enough. There are others who face inequalities and can barely make it through each day. Once people reach the max, there money will go to those who actually need it and to organizations who are fighting against climate change.

  2. Jayanti

    Hi Alison! I loved your webpage. I live in the Bay Area, so I definitely have experience with wildfires and droughts. I remember that day in your slideshow when the sun was gone and the sky was bright orange- it was so bizarre. To lessen our carbon footprint, my family has a few solar panels and a hybrid car, and we’re trying to fly less. Nice job!

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