Wildfires and Climate Change: It's Enough to Make You Sick

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- This week started off ominously with two independent teams of scientists saying that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is collapsing as a result of man-made global warming. The melt could put coastal cities under water in the not-too-distant future.

Turned out that was only the start of the week's bad news for the globe. Since then, California wildfires have begun raging again, this time near San Diego. The early start to the season of vicious, destructive infernos is evidence that climate change is already directly affecting individuals in ways predicted by the recently released National Climate Assessment report, or NCAR. Nine fires have been reported to be burning in the San Diego area, one person has been killed and a firefighter injured. More than 20,000 evacuation notices were delivered in Carlsbad alone. A nuclear plant and a university are among those sites abandoned. Local news channels have included warnings about the dangers of exposure to smoke.

In perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the NCAR, released May 6 by the federal government, researchers listed health risks caused by warming temperatures and resulting changes in the environment. These effects constitute an area of immediate and often ignored hazards from global warming, including those from more intense and more frequent wildfires. State governments and the insurance industry are already reacting, shifting in the direction of climate change prediction and adaptation.

The NCAR is the work of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, established by President H.W. Bush in 1989 and mandated by Congress with the Global Change Research Act of 1990. It involves 300 experts, including researchers from 13 federal departments. The program is overseen by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee and the findings are reviewed by the public and experts, including a panel of the National Academy of Sciences.

Among the hazards that affect the health of the U.S. populace, the report includes rising ground-level ozone, pollution and threat to life from increased wildfires, increased allergens, more days of extreme heat, more extreme rainfall and flooding, swelling populations of mosquitos and other disease-carrying insects, a climb in the frequency and severity of drought conditions and heightened stress levels among animals and people.

Most of those causes carry the potential for multiple ill effects. An increase in wildfires for instance could affect not only property but also those with respiratory problems or those with any number of stress-related conditions. Drought and fire can also cause damage to the quality of drinking water. As natural environments become compromised, wildlife can relocate to populated areas, threatening locals with the spread of disease and unexpected physical encounters with hungry, agitated wild animals.

The Present Evidence

California is a test case for many of the problems outlined in the NCAR. According to the California Department of Health (CDPH), the State of California as a matter of policy sees many of the personal health risks outlined in NCAR as related to climate change. Officials there confirmed that they were already seeing dramatic changes in weather patterns that could affect the health of citizens.

In an email, Richard Stapler, Deputy Secretary for Communications for the California Natural Resources Agency noted that the 30-month period from October 2011 to March 2014 was the driest 30-month period, statewide, in the 1895 to 2014 record.

The risk of wildfires increase during dry periods and heavy smoke from wildfires "can cause respiratory distress in even the healthiest of people," Stapler said. Children, the elderly and those with a history of respiratory problems are more at risk and "are asked to shelter in place or avoid the area altogether" during wildfires, he said.

Responding to a question on drought's effect on water quality, Stapler noted that there were many environmental factors that could impact the quality of the water supply, including flooding, drought and wildfires. But rising temperatures put quality of life at risk in other ways, he said.

Changes in the timing of snowfall and snowmelt as a result of climate change may make it more difficult to refill reservoir flood control space during late spring and early summer, potentially reducing the amount of surface water available during a dry season. Changes in reservoir levels also affect lake recreation, hydroelectric power production, and fish habitat by altering water temperatures and quality. Higher air temperatures and changes in snowmelt will make it more difficult to manage reservoirs and reservoir releases to maintain temperatures cool enough for salmon and steelhead.

Officials from the CDPH were also aware of changes in weather patterns and the adverse effects on citizens.

"Increasing temperature and extreme heat events due to climate change and heat islands that concentrate additional heat in our dense urban areas, create health risks," officials from the department said in an email. Those risks "include heat cramps (salt deficiency), heat exhaustion (salt depletion plus water depletion), and most seriously, heatstroke and death (rising body temperature that results in cell damage and neurologic dysfunction)."

"We need to be monitoring the health impacts of increasing temperatures and taking steps to reduce heat risks as much as we can and prepare our communities, especially vulnerable populations, for these events," the department said, adding that, among other measures, it is working with other state agencies to deploy "cooler pavements, cooler roofs and buildings, urban greening, and a more resilient energy grid."

Insurance Industry Response

Nationwide, increased personal risk of health problems from climate change can also be found. Diseases borne by mosquitos and ticks are not as plentiful in the U.S. as in other countries, but a rise in those pests could elevate the risks of Lyme Disease, West Nile Virus and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Cases of dengue fever, a disease that has historically been relegated to more underdeveloped tropical regions, have been turning up in Florida, as reported last year by NPR. As areas north become wetter and warmer, the risk increases that incidence of such cases could continue to spread.

In communities that deal with flooding, diseases from contaminated water are a concern. Once a flood has receded, air quality problems can plague buildings previously exposed to the flooding. Breathing problems, allergies, asthma and respiratory infections are all more common in these water-compromised environments.

On its Web site, the Insurance Information Institute cites a recent report that finds "heavy rainstorms linked to flooding are increasing in frequency in the Midwest . . . . Since 1961, the frequency of the largest of these storms, those that produce rainfall of three or more inches in a single day, increased by 103 percent. The states where the trend is most evident are Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana. . . " Incidence of loss from severe thunderstorms, which can lead to fatalities even in the absence of tornado activity, are rising dramatically.

That's the kind of data the insurance industry takes seriously, even if companies don't confront global warming head-on. Reactions to flooding in particular have grown more sophisticated as flood intensity and frequency have increased.

According to Steven Weisbart, Senior Vice President and Chief Economist at the Insurance Information Institute, policies now include coverage for mold cleanup that would have been overlooked 20 years ago, responded to changing trends. Policy changes are informed by projections from scientists, but driven by hard data on losses, Weisbart emphasized in a phone interview.

"I would have to say that right this minute, all that that report [the NCAR] would do would be to reinforce the data gathering, the alertness to issues that might eventually result in underwriting changes, increased rates and other responses the industry might come up with," he said.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners is pushing back against that conservative tendency within the industry, with a multistate survey of insurers on the topic of climate change preparedness intended to encourage a pro-active role in planning for the damaging effects of a warmer planet.

In particular, the Web site of the NAIC lists climate change as one of the more important of several factors influencing a rise of more intense and frequent wildfires and an extension of the wildfire season. 

According to statistics cited on the NAIC Web site, nearly 2 million homes in California alone are at high or extreme risk from wildfires, which topped the historic milestone of 9 million acres burned in a year during three years of the last decade. Reinsurance giant Munich Re reports that insured losses from California wildfires in 2007 alone topped $2 billion.

The cost of losses is being driven down in recent decades due in large part to increased awareness by the state and federal governments, property owners and the insurance industry. But those loss figures don't necessarily include the full impact on personal health, the extent of which is hard to measure.

Meanwhile the wildfires themselves are increasing, with total burned acreage expected to double over the next 50 years, the NAIS says, citing federal projections. Such projections, together with the observable trends in climate change affecting many areas, ensure that the nation as a whole will continue to face global warming's threat to personal health as a permanent, worsening concern.

-- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in New York

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