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#bioPGH Blog: Wildfire Smoke over the Three Rivers
Sep 18

#bioPGH Blog: Wildfire Smoke over the Three Rivers

By Dr. Maria Wheeler-Dubas, Research and Science Education Outreach Manager

Biophilia NetworkA resource of Biophilia: Pittsburgh, #bioPGH is a weekly blog and social media series that aims to encourage both children and adults to reconnect with nature and enjoy what each of our distinctive seasons has to offer. 

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This Monday evening around 6:30 p.m., I was out for a jog, but the sky stopped me in my tracks. Sunset wasn’t for another hour or so, but the horizon had an eerie, hazy glow. The strangest part was the sun — it was still a bright orb in the sky, but not as bright as it should have been. The light outside felt comparable to an eclipse, but the sky wasn’t clouded over. I tried taking a picture with my phone, but couldn’t properly do the scene justice. Later that evening, though, the mystery was solved; smoke all the way from our U.S. West Coast had blown into the Pittsburgh area and created a haze over our skies. From thousands of miles away.

2020 has been a year of many things, but one notable issue is that it has been a year of climate change playing a major role in fires around the world. In the beginning of the year, approximately 30,000 square miles of Australia were damaged by wildfires (roughly the same collective area as the entire state of South Carolina). Over the summer, wildfires blazed in the Arctic, unprecedented except by the Arctic wildfires of 2019; and currently, we are watching devastation unfold as wildfires make their way up and down our West Coast.

Of course, fires an important part of many habitat types, and some plants actually depend on fire to release seeds. However, the issue with the current wildfires is they are being exacerbated by the effects of climate change. Droughts, extended dry seasons, high temperatures, and changing wind patterns act together to increase the risk and impacts of wildfire seasons, which is lasting longer each year.

Fire ecologists and climate scientists have predicted an increase in the intensity of wildfires since at least the 1990’s, if not earlier, and if left unchecked, these cycles of wildfires could continue to worsen as the effects of climate change become more evident. However, the good news is that we are not helpless in this situation and we can still act to slow climate change. It will take all of us working together, but if 2020 should have shown us anything else, it’s that we humans can be strong and resilient — and we can accomplish something great when we set our minds to it!

If you’re just getting started on the journey, the suggestions below are all great ways to get started taking action about climate change.

Keep Learning
Knowledge is power, and with a complicated issue like climate change, it can be intimidating. NASA and NOAA both have helpful education materials available online, but for more in-depth reading, check out the works of Dr. Katherine Hayhoe, Dr. Michael E. Mann and Pittsburgh’s own Dr. Patricia DeMarco.

Get Involved
Here in Pittsburgh, a number of non-profits are actively addressing the issue of climate change through various routes, whether it be education, advocacy, policy, etc.  You can get involved with an organization that fits your engagement preferences and put your unique skills to work for an important cause.

Get the Word Out
Don’t forget your voice has power! We can all have a major impact by talking about the issue — speak up on social media, bring it up in community meetings, send emails and hand-written letters to your elected officials and keep climate change in conversation. Another huge thing you can do is be a voice of encouragement. When you see someone taking action, let them know you see it and applaud them.

Eat Fresh, Eat Green, Eat Local
Try swapping just a few meals with meat per week for meals that are plant-based. Meat-based diets are resource-heavy because of the energy it takes to grow and raise animals — we could technically consume that energy directly ourselves and skip the “middleman.” And since right now, our local farmers markets are still in full swing, it’s a great opportunity to eat fresh, local produce. An important note about this: don’t worry about marketing myths from years past — you can mindfully consume even an entirely plant-based diet and still receive all of the proper nutrients and proteins that you require. A healthy diet just requires balance.

Buy Less, Buy Better and Brainstorm Reuse
Fast-fashion, discarded electronics and other unwanted materials are problematic on their own since they are likely to end up in a landfill either here or somewhere abroad, but production and transportation of consumer goods is another major issue in the fight against climate change. One way around this is to be intentional in our shopping — choose products that are made in the U.S. and choose products that are meant to last rather than quick to purchase. There is usually a trade-off here since higher quality goods are more expensive, but when possible, opting for one well-made shirt rather than multiple flimsy ones is the better choice for fighting climate change. And when you're finished with a good, watch out for “wish-cycling.” We often hope that donating clothes, toys and equipment that we no longer want will keep those items in circulation longer, but we often donate things that cannot be reused. Keep in mind what really can and cannot be recycled, and plan your purchase power accordingly.

Easy Changes for Big Impact
Making a difference at home right now is easier than you may think. Get started today with these ten actions specially prepared for you by our Phipps staff.

Make the Switch at Phipps
On weekdays from 11:30 a.m. to close, and all day on weekends, you can stop by a station in our Tropical Forest Conservatory or Tropical Fruit and Spice Room where you can switch your home electricity generator to 100% renewable power right on the spot. As our special thanks to you for this powerful action, if you’re not yet a Phipps member, you’ll be given a free one-year membership at our Family/Household level, and if you’re already a member, you’ll receive a six-month extension at your current level.

Deeper Dive
If you’re looking for detailed deeper dives that do the research and show their receipts, check out Project Drawdown. This resource breaks down contributions to climate change by sector, and both their book and the website are helpful guides to meaningful action. You can also calculate your carbon footprint here, and further map out ways to reduce that footprint.

The wildfires are admittedly terrifying, but I am still optimistic. Pittsburghers have shown themselves to be resilient and adaptable — I have every confidence we could set an example for the rest of the country and the world. Y’inz with me?

Continue the Conversation: Share your nature discoveries with our community by posting to Twitter and Instagram with hashtag #bioPGH, and R.S.V.P. to attend our next Biophilia: Pittsburgh meeting.

Image Credits: Header, public domain; Cover, created on 18 Sep 2020 using NASA EODIS Worldview