Siberian wildfire smoke increases could cause thousands of deaths, billions in costs for East Asia

A team from Japan’s Hokkaido University’s research study recently uncovered worrying findings for residents across East Asia. The team looked into the increasing frequency of wildfires in Siberia, and the growing threat of smoke that Japan and other areas downwind of Siberia are forced to breathe.

Previous studies have confirmed wildfires are becoming more common in Arctic biomes across the globe, including Siberia. A 2022 USFS study found wildfires in Siberia tripled from the 2001 – 2010 period to the 2011 – 2020 period. The area burned by wildfires in Siberia also increased by a factor of 2.6 during the same period.

Siberian smoke

“We found that annual fire frequency and the extent of burnt areas were related to various combinations of seasonal air temperature, precipitation, ground moisture, and lightning frequency,” the 2022 study said. “Increased wildfire and loss of permafrost may threaten ongoing settlement and industrialization, particularly for western Siberia.”

But the wildfires have implications for residents in numerous areas other than Siberia. The Hokkaido University researchers used global climate simulation models to evaluate how the expected increase in wildfires, and wildfire smoke, will affect people downwind of Siberia.

The researchers found smoke from Siberia’s wildfires releases aerosols, or air pollution particles that reflect sunlight away from the earth’s surface, which greatly degrades air quality, leading to a drastic increase in air pollution, possibly thousands of deaths, and billions of dollars in economic losses, including upwards of:

        • 70,000 deaths and $80 billion in losses across China
        • 32,000 deaths and $100 billion in losses in Japan
        • 4,000 deaths and $20 billion in losses in South Korea

Siberian smoke study

“Despite the limitations of our study, our findings provide readers with a critical message on the effect of increased particulate matter caused by Siberian wildfires on climate and air quality as well as mortality and the economy under present and future atmospheric conditions,” the researchers said. “Future studies must aim to prevent air pollution emissions from Siberian wildfires and take further preventive measures in the future under ongoing and future climate changes.”

Read the full study here.

A team from Japan’s Hokkaido University’s research study recently uncovered worrying findings for residents across East Asia. The team looked into the increasing frequency of wildfires in Siberia, and the growing threat of smoke that Japan and other areas downwind of Siberia are forced to breathe.

Smoke temporarily covered nearly all U.S. lakes between 2019 and 2021

As wildfire activity and severity increase globally, so too does the pervasiveness of wildfire smoke.

Researchers in the U.S. are working to find out how growing amounts of wildfire smoke nationwide affect ecosystems including aquatic habitats. A recent study published in the Global Change Biology research journal found that even smoke impacts lake ecology.

“An incredible 98.9 percent of lakes experienced at least 10 smoke-days a year, with 89.6 percent of lakes receiving over 30 lake smoke-days, and lakes in some regions experiencing up to 4 months of cumulative smoke-days,” the study said.

lake smoke

The term “smoke-days” describes the number of days on which any portion of a lake’s boundary intersected with smoke as defined by NOAA’s hazard mapping system daily smoke product. The smoke-days concept has been used previously to demonstrate smoke exposure by ecoregion, but was used specifically for lakes for the first time in this study.

Smoke and ash from wildfires lower the solar radiation that enters lake habitats, affecting organisms in numerous ways from physiology to behavior, according to the research. Particles from the smoke deposited within lake ecosystems can also affect several biological and geological processes, including the availability and cycling of various nutrients.

Less than 0.01 percent of land in North America burned between 2019 and 2021, but the area covered in smoke was 75 percent of the continent’s total land. The year 2021 marked the largest number of high-density lake smoke-days and is the year with the largest portion of the country burned and largest area covered with smoke, while 2020 had the lowest number of high-density smoke-days and the smallest area burned and smallest area covered with smoke.

“Large knowledge gaps impede our ability to predict and manage the responses of lakes to smoke and ash,” the researchers concluded. “Measuring the extent and effects of smoke and ash deposition remains challenging. Larger-scale studies are necessary to disentangle the mediating effects of scale and watershed context on the responses of lakes to smoke and ash deposition.”

Read the entire study here.

Will fire be the death of California’s wine industry?

The “beating heart of the American wine industry” has had to reckon with this question since 2017 when numerous wildfires spread across northern California’s famed wine country. The Tubbs, Atlas, and Nuns fires burned hundreds of thousands of acres, caused numerous deaths, and destroyed multiple wineries and vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties.

The total acreage burned and widespread property damage caused the 2017 wildfire season to be the most destructive in California’s history. That record-breaking year was quickly surpassed by the 2018 and 2020 fire seasons. The 2020 season, in particular, also broke burn records in the other top American wine-producing states of Oregon and Washington, and even Canada in 2021. Wildfires in the years following impacted international wine markets as well, including Italy, France, and Australia.

University California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources

Intense flames aren’t the only threat wildfires bring to vineyards; it’s also the smoke they produce. A condition called “smoke taint” causes wine grapes exposed to smoke to acquire “unmarketable smoky, burnt, ashy, or medicinal sensory characteristics,” according to the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI).

The international wine industry has made it clear that it views wildfires and smoke as existential threats, along with increasing water shortages and climate change as a whole. The industry has poured billions of dollars into research on ways to stave off the industry’s wildfire-caused death rattle. Examples of recent smoke-related wine research in the U.S. include a protective spray coating for grapes, detecting the compounds responsible for the undesirable taste, and using smoke sensors in vineyards for risk assessment.

Oregon State University smoke research
Oregon State University smoke research

Agriculture-based technological developments, however, can only do so much to keep a fire-sensitive crop alive after it’s planted on fire-dependent lands. Grapes, while not technically invasive, have invaded portions of the Western United States’ lands and have largely usurped once highly forested regions where fire played an important ecological role. As prescribed fire establishes a larger role in modern Western land management practices, how long can an industry based on fruit that needs a smokeless environment survive and thrive?

The birth of California’s wine industry is well-recorded: Spanish missionaries planted the state’s first sustained vineyards in southern California during the late 1700s using grapes native to Europe — to make sacramental wine. Wine production then exploded in the northern and central parts of the state during the Gold Rush, paving the way for California’s current top grape-producing counties of Fresno, San Joaquin, and Kern.

What’s not well-recorded is how agricultural land conversions cleared millions of acres of conifer and oak forests throughout the state to make way for vineyards and other crop fields. In Napa and Sonoma counties specifically, areas now known as the pinnacle of “wine country,” modern vineyards sit on land that once supported massive oak forests culturally maintained by the area’s various Indigenous tribes.

“While almost all of the valley oaks are gone from Napa — the savannas were largely cleared to make way for intensive agriculture in the late 19th century — a few pockets remain,” a New York Times article on the Napa Valley Historical Ecology Atlas said. “The oldest trees, dating back more than 300 years, were alive when the Caymus, Napa, Canijolmano and Mayacma tribes managed the valley to produce abundant acorns, deer, salmon, and other staples.”

The clearing of these woodlands was coupled with a government-mandated suppression of cultural burning, a kind of prescribed burning Native Americans used to promote culturally significant foods and resources within a landscape. After a century of fire suppression, the USFS has begun to understand how significant cultural fire is to promoting biodiversity and creating healthy landscapes.

“Colonization and subsequent governmental fire policy mandates have disrupted the cultural use of fire, which in turn has disrupted ecological functions where those fires are absent,” USFS research said. “As society grapples with the devastating impacts of wildfires and the loss of biological diversity, many Indigenous people see traditional fire use as a key to mitigation of devastating losses while retaining traditional livelihoods associated with burning.”

In hopes of preventing future megafires, California increases prescribed burns throughout the state, including wine country. Even though research shows smoke from prescribed burns tends to be less harmful and toxic compared with smoke from wildfires, the grapes themselves don’t seem to care.

“Studies have shown that grapes need to be exposed to only a single smoke event, irrespective of the source, to become ‘tainted,’” AWRI said. “Bushfires, forest fires, planned burns, grassfires, and agricultural burns can all cause smoke taint if smoke from those fires is present in a vineyard at a high enough level for a period of time. Current research suggests fresh smoke presents the greatest risk for smoke taint, but smoke that has drifted hundreds of kilometers has also resulted in smoke taint.”

Efforts have been made for fire planners and wine producers to work together to minimize smoke’s negative effects on wine grapes, but thus far have mostly been in vain. AWRI and other wine industry researchers recommend the best time to conduct prescribed burns to limit smoke taint  is during the height of wildfire season between May and October; before grapevine flowering and after grape harvest. The “usual” best times to set prescribed burns, mid-spring or in the fall, are the most at-risk times for smoke taint in grapes.

The contradiction is clear: Grapes, at least those that winemakers don’t want smoke-tainted, can’t exist in an area with regularly prescribed burns, e.g. California.

Grapes themselves are partly to blame for this. A concept called “terroir” has been used for centuries to describe the deep ecology behind why grapes grown in different places and in different ways acquire different qualities. Everything including temperature, soil, geology, elevation, water quality, wind direction, farming practices, and the winemaking process influences grapes and, by extension, the wine made from them. Even if researchers could 100 percent prevent smoke-taint issues in wine grapes, the grapes themselves would still be affected by the inevitable changes the fire-dependent landscape will experience in years to come.

The irony is that California does have native grapes, which thrived in the state’s pre-colonized and fire-dependent forests. In fact, the global wine industry wouldn’t exist today without California Wild Grapevines, as the species was used to save the European wine industry between 1870 and 1900 when most wine grapes were killed by leaf- and root-attacking aphids. Winemakers, in a last-resort desperate bid, used Califonia Wild Grapevine roots and grafted them onto European grape varieties. The result was a plant with the root resilience of a wild grape and the desirable taste of a European grape.

California wild grapes themselves, however, were originally discredited by European colonists for being too “foxy” and not containing enough sugar. But in a state destined to have more smoke, the more fire-resilient California Wild Grape, whose burnt vines can resprout, may soon be the California wine industry’s only option. One farmer in Sonoma County agrees and is experimenting with more than 30 different native grape hybrids in response to climate change.

The global wine industry is one of stubborn tradition. The industry’s desire to find easy “solutions” to existential problems without systemic change paints a worrying picture of the role California’s vineyards play in the state’s fight against future wildfires. Winemakers can only hide behind the industry’s $70 billion price tag for so long.

There comes a point at which economic benefit is outweighed by potential ecological destruction, and the industry will soon have to decide whether it will play a role in California’s solutions to megafires or actively hamper efforts to help make the state’s landscape healthy. Winemakers in California may soon have to answer the question of “when should this industry die?”

Smoke warnings don’t arrive soon enough

A new study report from the University of Oregon suggests that public warnings on wildfire smoke air quality often aren’t issued till after smoke has already swept into the area. The report details recommendations on better communications by public institutions about wildfire smoke and health risks — so that local residents have more time to prepare. More than half of wildfire-related tweets by 32 institutional accounts in 2022 were posted at peak levels of smoke when exposure risk was highest.

“On the one side, these institutions are doing a great job of highlighting the risks when the risks are present,” said Catherine Slavik, a postdoctoral researcher at the U of O Center for Science Communication Research. She said she hopes more of these conversations will occur before it’s too late for affected residents to prepare.

smoke alerts by location

KEZI reported that of 1287 analyzed tweets, only one in seven instructed and encouraged preparation such as wearing respirators, staying indoors, or using air purifiers. Only 213 of all the tweets used AQI labels to report on the smoky air and only 64 described risks with numeric data — such as percentage likelihood of a fire spreading or the number of acres burning.

Recommendations for smoke communications include expressing hazard severity, risk, likelihood, and mitigation, including numeric information and AQI levels when describing risks, practicing community engagement, and discussing risks outside of the fire season.


Smoke reduced life expectancy across Washington

Most of Washington State’s hazardous air pollution comes from wildfire smoke, burdening already over-burdened populations in the state and lowering the average number of years people in those communities are expected to live.

A new report from the state’s Department of Ecology looked into air pollution across Washington and found that the largest contributor to air pollution in over-burdened communities was from wildfire smoke. The DOE is working to improve air quality in 16 places, representing numerous communities, neighborhoods, and towns across Washington that are overburdened and highly impacted by criteria air pollution.

Targeted areas in Washington

The federal Clean Air Act requires the EPA to set National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for six common air pollutants. The DOE monitors these pollutants and acts if levels become unhealthy. These  pollutants are:

During the cold season, the largest contributor to air pollution was usually smoke from wood-burning stoves or furnaces.

Residents of the studied overburdened communities, on average, live 2.4 years shorter lives than the state average and also have higher numbers of deaths from cardiovascular disease.

Satellite photo, Bolt Creek (on the north) and Cedar Creek fires Sept. 10, 2022. Processed by Pierre Markuse.
Satellite photo, Bolt Creek (north) and Cedar Creek fires Sept. 2022. Processed by Pierre Markuse.

“Long-term exposure to air pollution may contribute to development of disease — for example, asthma development in children or chronic cardiovascular conditions in adults,” the department’s report says. “Further, short-term exposure to air pollution is associated with exacerbations in existing conditions such as asthma or COPD.”

The overburdened communities included:

        • Spokane and Spokane Valley
        • Tri-Cities to Wallula
        • East Yakima
        • Lower Yakima Valley
        • Moxee Valley
        • George and West Grant County
        • Mattawa
        • Ellensburg
        • Wenatchee and East Wenatchee
        • Everett
        • North Seattle and Shoreline
        • South Seattle
        • South King County
        • Northeast Puyallup
        • South and East Tacoma
        • Vancouver

The report also warns that life expectancies in these communities may drop even further as the frequency of wildfire smoke events has been rising. The worry is in line with USDA research that points to wildfire seasons in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho that are projected to last longer with increased wildfire frequency, size, and total acres burned as a result of climate change.

“In Northwest forests, a warming climate coupled with more frequent wildfires will lead to a shift away from shade-tolerant, thin-barked, or fire-intolerant species such as western hemlock, subalpine fir, and Engelmann spruce,” the report said. “With warmer and drier conditions and more frequent disturbance, some locations will likely shift from forest to shrubland or grassland.”

Nearly double the usual winter wildfires, triple the acreage burned in northern India

India’s Forest Service has reported 1,006 wildfire alerts to the northern state of Uttarakhand since November 1, according to the Times of India. That number is up from the 556 wildfire alerts the service reported during the same time last year.

The increase is part of a worrying and destructive cycle that has escalated in the area for the past six years. Uttarakhand has had triple the acres burned by wildfires since 2017, worsened by its first-ever repeated occurrence of winter wildfires, or wildfires outside of the state’s usual fire season of February 15 to June 15.

“The unusual shift in the fire season may be linked to different reasons including climate change, the lockdown, or too much human intervention in the forests,” Arti Chaudhary, the head of Silviculture and Forest Resource Management Division at the Forest Research Institute, told the Times. “A five-year study across 15 states of the country that witness forest fires, including Uttarakhand, has been initiated to thoroughly understand the actual reasons behind this shift, as it has been recorded all over the country.”

The winter wildfires also contributed to the state’s above-average wildfire carbon emissions in 2021. Uttarakhand’s wildfires emitted an estimated 0.2 megatonnes of carbon in March 2021 alone, breaking a record set in 2003, according to Copernicus Climate Change Service scientist Mark Parrington.

Northern India’s skies took on a hazy hue in November caused in part by the unusual wildfire shift, NASA satellites show. The haze is reportedly a seasonal occurrence caused by urban pollution entering the atmosphere when seasonal weather patterns trap air pollution near the ground, but smoke from the unseasonal wildfires made the air quality even worse.

“The World Health Organization considers 15 micrograms per cubic meter of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) to be a safe limit,” said NASA. “But ground-based air quality monitors routinely measured levels that exceeded 300 and, at times, 500 micrograms per cubic meter in November.”

northern India, NASA image
Northern India, NASA image