Just breathe, or maybe not. Not everywhere.

Last Sunday, there were 520 separate wildfire outbreaks in Portugal and Spain. 

This year has been a nightmare year for firefighters across the globe. Portugal – that knows a thing or two about natural disasters too – has experienced the most destructive wildfires in its history this summer, whilst the California drought relapse is wreaking havoc in the wild Sequoia forests on the National Parks.

There is debate over what is starting those hundreds (yes, hundreds) of ignition points. It’s more than probable that arsonists take advantage of the brittle conditions to pursue their own agenda, but the fact remains: the temperatures this fall are between 5 and 10°C over the season average. Weak precipitations finished drying out the flora of these regions.

Enduring droughts and empowered winds make up for a bad combination for forests

To help with nothing, the late blooming hurricane Ophelia emancipated from usual paths and shooted eastward, brushing the coast of Southern European countries. These small winds (90km/h gusts) fanned the coals of the Iberian haystack.

108 people have lost their lives in the Portuguese fires since June. The country declared three days of National Mourning, and 4,000 firefighters are still at grips with the flames North of the Tagus river. Protesters took to the streets to call for cabinet replacement, which the opposition followed up on by challenging the government with a motion of defiance.

And that’s how climate change can destabilise the political destiny of a country. With a warm October, favourable winds and a dose of human unpreparedness

This black series of self-feeding disasters showed the world the mechanisms of climate change. Imperceivable changes in the climate create the conditions for extreme weather events, than then translate into very real consequences for humans. Humans that are sometimes thousands of kilometres away from the situation.

Fires can’t affect the global weather (can they?)

                          London turned Mad Max on everyone because of Ophelia (Credit: Roger Jones)

Hurricane Ophelia not only fanned the flames of Portugal but also transported the cinders and smokes of the blaze. This caused the skies of cities as far as London to turn a dusty yellow, as if we had entered the post-apocalypse era just like that, one fine morning.

But everything is mixed up, I hear you say. How can a hurricane in Portugal change the colour of the sky in London whilst affecting the air quality across Europe? This makes no sense.

Well, it does, in nature kind of way.

The tropical storm, while it was picking up power off the African coast, charged up with Saharan dust. On its way up, it met and mingled with the mega-fires of Portugal and Galicia, an encounter from which it left loaded with smokes, ashes and burnt wood. On its final run towards Ireland – a place that knows storms, but really not tropical ones usually – it was so heavy with aerosols that it turned the region an otherworldly yellow.

What do trees become when they burn?

Have you ever wondered what happened to a burnt piece of wood. A carbonised piece of wood? Well if we consider that dry wood is almost pure carbon, then the flame you see is literally that carbon dissolving into thin air. Or… into the atmosphere. And it’s not exactly dissolving. It’s transforming into…

Yes. You have guessed it. CO2 aka Carbon dioxide aka Mr. Greenhouse Gas. That’s the first problem of wildfire. They force carbon traps (forests) to release all the carbon they had worked so long to gather and transform into branches.

Burning forests not only release stupid amounts of carbon in the atmosphere but also introduce an entire society of particles into the atmosphere. These lighter-than-air residues (ashes, toxic molecules, smoke) remain suspended into mid-air, transported higher and higher by the winds and the weather. Like that, they travel thousands of kilometres, obscuring the atmosphere and slowly breaking down into micro-particles, that animals, cows, birds and humans alike, inhale.

In scientific terms, these are called aerosols. Remember? One of the planetary boundaries.

Choosing the air we breathe

But there is a solution. Trees and other vegetation – what a surprise! – filter most of these toxic substances, whether they come from distant fires or local exhaust pipes. Trees need to be implemented as an active solution to purify, humidify and resorb the carbon debt humanity is underwriting day after day after day. This starts with the appropriate protection and preservation of forests, like the invaluable asset that they are.

All environmental problems are linked. From agricultural practice to a global rise in temperatures, all these little pieces of the puzzle contribute to making the world a more favourable place for life, or a harsher environment for the remaining ones.

It’s really up to us to understand this complicated puzzle as it unravels before our very eyes. And stringing those pieces together is the purpose of our work.