Our Opinion: Extreme weather and disease won't just blow over
If you've ever lamented that Oregon is "turning into California," you might have been more right than you realized.
This week, northwest Oregon was hit by a bizarre occurrence: a summer windstorm, with hot easterly gales sweeping through the region, bringing thick smoke into what had been blue skies, ripping limbs from trees, whipping up wildfires in our area and causing widespread power outages.
Now, this sort of storm is extremely unusual for here. But that's not the case everywhere.
"If you've heard about Santa Ana winds before," the National Weather Service advised on Twitter as the windstorm approached, "this is pretty much the same idea."
California has been wracked with devastating wildfires in recent years, and some major fires have scorched swaths of Oregon and Washington in that time as well. That's nothing new under the sun, of course — wildfires have long been nature's way of renewing the forest, and they can be ignited by dry lightning strikes just as well as by human activity, such as the "gender reveal" pyrotechnics that reportedly sparked one of California's major blazes this summer — but climatologists say fires are only becoming more numerous and harder to contain, and fire season has become steadily longer, with recent major fires recorded as late as November.
As fire danger grows in the West, the hot and dry conditions won't stay contained to California. 110-plus-degree days may not be imminent here, but our Labor Day storm was an important reminder that as the Earth warms, our climate is gradually becoming more like California's, and less like the temperate northwest Oregon that we have known. Oregon, too, will have to confront the fire conditions California has been facing. In Oregon, too, deadly heat will become a more regular occurrence.
Right now, our state, our country and our world are in the grip of a pandemic the likes of which we haven't seen in a century. It's difficult to think about more than one existential challenge at a time, much less the challenges of the future. But as our world becomes less hospitable, each challenge we face and overcome is a dress rehearsal for the next one.
Climate change is unfolding more slowly than the coronavirus pandemic, which materialized in China over the course of several weeks and then exploded elsewhere, including here. Global temperatures have been on the rise for decades. But it's not a hypothetical "far future" phenomenon — it's here.
Northwest Oregon doesn't have Santa Ana winds — except this week, it did. Temperatures in northern Siberia don't hit triple digits — but this summer, they did. Major wildfires don't burn hundreds of thousands of acres in California in November — but in 2018, they did.
And unfortunately, the leading experts say that even once we've put this coronavirus pandemic to bed, our public health situation won't be fully healed, either.
COVID-19 will likely continue to circulate, perhaps eventually degrading into a less deadly illness, virologists believe. The hope is that vaccines and treatments will bring the coronavirus under control, but it's likely not possible to eradicate it altogether.
And a plethora of candidates for the next pandemic have already been identified. Experts say it's impossible to know which virus will mutate into a form with rapid human-to-human transmission and serious health effects, the sort that could spread out of control and encircle the globe, but they already have several they're keeping an eye on. Just this week, the World Health Organization warned that countries should start planning now for the next pandemic after COVID-19.
In fact, some experts say pandemics like this one may become much more common.
The coronavirus that causes COVID-19, like many emergent viruses, has what's called a zoonotic origin, meaning it was originally a virus that was passed between non-human animals. When the virus mutated enough to spread to humans and easily spread between humans, it wasn't long before it erupted into a pandemic.
While the science is both complicated and evolving, experts say that as humans interact more with animals, the risk of disease jumping from animals to humans grows. Some of those interactions are intimately tied to climate change — for instance, deforestation in places like Brazil, Indonesia and China, and factory farming in Asia and the Americas. And some scientists worry about a feedback loop, since as permafrost in the Arctic melts, bacteria and viruses that have been sequestered in deep freeze are released and could sicken humans who have no natural immunity to them.
All of this isn't to say that we are all doomed. Humans are adaptable, and we're learning from our present experience both with warming temperatures and the coronavirus pandemic — things like smart forestry management, social distancing measures and the value of contingency planning. The lessons we learn will be important as the challenges we face get worse and more pressing.
Of course, we have to be open and honest about those challenges. Some don't want to recognize the dangers of climate change even as they are unfolding around us, just as some prefer to downplay the coronavirus pandemic despite months of death and disruption that have been far worse in the United States than much of the rest of the world. We can't elect leaders with the godlike power to cool the Earth or stop a disease in its tracks, but we can vote for leaders who are clear-eyed about what we're up against and have the will and foresight to make plans for the future. We can be proactive, not just reactive. And we have to draw a straight line from where we were, to where we are now, to where we will be in the future.
It wasn't just a windstorm. It was a warning. And as we rebuild, we will have to also get ready for more to come.
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