There’s an idea that when the climate crisis begins, we will know it. Movies present it as a moment when the world’s weather suddenly turns apocalyptic: winds howl, sea levels surge, capital cities are decimated. Climate messaging can bolster this notion, implying that we have a certain number of years to save the day before reaching a cataclysmic point of no return.
Living in expectation of a definitive global break can blind us to the fact that gradually, insidiously, the climate crisis has already arrived.
In few places is this as clear as California, where extreme wildfires have become the new abnormal. There is currently a “fire siege” in northern California, with wildfires burning in every one of the nine Bay Area counties except for San Francisco, which is entirely urbanized. Tens of thousands of residents have evacuated and people are choking on smoke.
The circumstances of these blazes are unusual. They began with a tropical storm deteriorating in the Pacific Ocean, spinning off moisture in the direction of California. As it made landfall in the San Francisco region over the weekend, it sparked a remarkable lightning storm, and 10,849 lightning strikes were tallied in three days.
Over millennia California’s landscape has adapted to burn, with some tree species requiring the heat of flames to open their seed cases, and lightning-sparked wildfires are not unusual. But the state has been experiencing unheard-of heat, and just logged what may have been the hottest ever temperature recorded on earth: 129.9F in Death Valley, a few hundred miles southeast of the Bay Area lightning swarm. Vegetation is achingly dry and primed to ignite.
California’s governor announced on Wednesday that there were 367 fires, and conflagrations have grown so rapidly that there are not enough firefighters to tackle them all. Neil Lareau, an atmospheric scientist, told us in an interview that he was watching the current fires with “incredulity”.
“It seems like every year re-ups the previous year in terms of pushing the envelope, in terms of how much fire we’re seeing in the landscape and how severe that fire is,” he said.
There were also, by the by, several fire tornadoes at the weekend. Witnessing these phenomena, another fire expert remarked that California “is the exemplar for climate change extreme events today”.
In the last decade, amid drought and searing heat, California has entered the “era of megafires”. Our new book, Fire in Paradise, tells the story of a town that was almost entirely wiped out by a fire of unheralded speed in 2018. It killed 85 people, making it the deadliest ever fire in California. Other notable blazes include a 1,000-ft wide fire tornado that churned through the town of Redding a few months before the Paradise catastrophe, and fires in California’s Wine Country that killed 44 people.
All of this is why, as we scan the headlines for the planetary shift that will mark the true arrival of the climate crisis, we risk losing sight of the fact that places like California are already experiencing it.
This is not entirely surprising. According to the ecological theory of “shifting baselines”, we do not notice the degradation of the natural world because little by little we get used to it, like a frog in hot water. We think that it has always been this way.
Once, for example, the passenger pigeon was the most abundant bird in North America, perhaps the world. Observers in the 19th century described great flocks so loud that you couldn’t hold a conversation and so large they obscured the sun: “The light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse”.
Yet slowly, as a result of overhunting and habitat destruction, they vanished into extinction, and most of us do not miss them because we have never known anything else. Our expectations of the natural world are simply different.
When it comes to California wildfires, the ground has been moving under our feet for decades, as heat rises, snowpacks shrink, and plants dry out. The baseline has shifted. How long before we forget that it was ever otherwise?