Opinion | Scott M. Estill: The future has arrived

Choking. Sore, itchy and watery eyes. Coughing, shortness of breath, dizziness, respiratory infections, chest pains and heart palpitations. No, these are not the possible side effects of the latest miracle drug from some pharmaceutical titan. These are the very real possible side effects from breathing the air today, according to the Canadian government. And they should know, as they are currently facing an overwhelming number of fires north of our border (the one without the wall). These fires number over 400 and have already burned more than 4 million acres in much of Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan. For perspective, this is about 6,250 square miles, or about the size of Delaware, Washington D.C., Rhode Island and half of Connecticut, combined. How about 10 times the land mass of Summit County? Or more than 3 million football fields for the NFL fans among us.

The fires this year have already burned about 12 times more acres than would be expected in an average year. It’s the second-worst fire year ever for Alberta. Yet, it’s only May. With several thousand firefighters battling the blazes, it looks to be a long and very hot summer for millions of people directly (and indirectly) affected by the fires. We haven’t even come close to reaching peak fire season. Welcome to the new reality.

Although Edmonton, Alberta, is about 1,333 miles from Dillon, the smoke knows no boundaries. Edmonton in May is often a bit chilly, with an average high of 62 degrees for the month (to clarify, that’s in Fahrenheit). Temperatures this May have been 18 to 27 degrees higher than the expected high temperatures. Higher temperatures bring drier conditions. Couple this with a lightning strike or careless cigarette butt and the rest is playing out in a real-time lesson on the effects of climate change.

These fires are causing severe heath issues for us as well as much of the United States. When the air quality in Denver is being unfavorably compared to cities like Delhi, India, and Dhaka, Bangladesh, to name only two of the usual suspects, you know things are not all well and good in Colorado. The health problems relate to the size and contents of the smoke particles from the fires. The size is small enough (under 2.5 microns) to permit them to penetrate deep into the lungs. And toxic these materials are. While my science background is limited to what I learned in high school, even I understand that breathing in carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and other volatile organic compounds is not good for your health.

What does this all mean for Summit County? According to a 2021 climate projection report, at the end of the 20th century Frisco and the Dillon Reservoir had 4 days above 80 degrees in a “hot” summer. This number has quadrupled and is expected to reach 37 days by the middle of the 21st Century. While I won’t be around to see it, by the end of this century the number is expected to be 89 days — or every day in the summer.

We don’t need a weather forecaster to tell us it is getting hotter. What does it matter? For starters, winters will be warmer and the arrival of spring earlier. Today, if you ski at Breckenridge from Nov. 15 through April 15, you have a 38% chance that the day will be above freezing (32 degrees). This is expected to double by the end of the century. For the last month of the ski season, there are typically nine days with temperatures above 40 degrees (to melt the snow). Soon, this is expected to reach half of the days, and 75% of the days by the end of the century. Like skiing in the slush? Neither do the tourists paying thousands of dollars to enjoy the snow. Less enjoyment for us, less revenue for the tourist industry and less tax revenues for the state and local governments.

The amount of moisture is also projected to change for us, with a reduction in overall precipitation, along with less predictable and heavy storms (both rain and snow), replacing the current more frequent/less intense pattern. With these changes the number and intensity of wildfires will increase. If you think the recent fires in Colorado, California and the Canadian provinces have been bad, wait, you ain’t seen nothing yet. These fires are projected to get 2-6 times worse in the coming decades, depending upon where in the wild West you happen to live.

The burn areas continue to pollute well after the fires have been extinguished. While no longer floating in the air, the toxic materials migrate to the water supply, usually after heavy storms and erosion come into the mix. And while we have a nice snowpack this year, future years envision much less water. Again, does anyone like fishing or rafting in dry river conditions? The smoke we have been breathing is a warning from the future. A warning that the future has arrived.

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