Excessive heat warnings are becoming routine as California’s hot summer persists, a microcosm of a warming world. Nighttime temperatures in the triple digits haunt hot spots from Death Valley to Arizona.
The natural environment is becoming more combustible, threatening threatening birds and other wildlife in ways not previously understood. The built environment meanwhile exacerbates heat waves, turning playgrounds into dangerous burn zones for children.
UCLA experts can provide insight into the causes and urgent threats of climate change–related heat and fires, along with research into solutions to protect health and wildlife.
Why California’s wildfires are getting so much worse
McDonald, a distinguished professor of geography with the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, is an international authority on climate change, its causes and its environmental and societal impacts. He is the lead author of a recent research paper exploring the factors driving California’s worsening wildfires.
“We’re getting hotter, drier air that makes fires easier to start. It makes the fuel much drier and the fires spread faster. They’re more intense, and they're more difficult to fight. We’re spending a huge amount of money with some unbelievably dedicated and talented people, but that will not be the solution. We’re not going to be able to tamp this down to the levels of burning we saw in the mid- to late-20th century using fire suppression alone.”
The urgent need to cool schools
V. Kelly Turner
Turner, an associate professor of geography and of urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, is an expert on the effects of extreme heat. Her opinion piece on heat solutions for California schools was recently published in the Los Angeles Times.
“Schools are some of the hottest places in our region. Single-story buildings surrounded by open, asphalt-dominated play yards with few trees provide little opportunity for cooling shade. Studying a school in the Pacoima neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley, my colleagues and I found that only 5% of the schoolyard was shaded at noon. A child standing on fully sun-exposed asphalt feels about 54 degrees hotter than a child standing in a shaded area during peak midday heat. And sun-exposed play equipment, asphalt and rubber mats can become hot enough to cause third-degree burns on a 90-degree day.”
Wildfire smoke: A big health threat from small particles
Jerrett, a professor in the department of environmental health sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, is co-director of the school’s Center for Healthy Climate Solutions, which is focused on public health approaches that address extreme heat and longer, more intense wildfires.
“There’s evidence still developing suggesting that wildfire smoke particulates can be more toxic than other forms of particulate. The smoke particles also tend to be smaller than general-sources particulate matter — those very small particles, smaller than 0.1 microns, can completely evade the body’s ability to filter it, passing through the lungs to permeate right into the circulation. That means the potential to deliver toxic doses is likely higher, by weight, in wildfire smoke than in general air pollution.”
When making a living becomes dangerous because of heat
Venkat is an associate professor at UCLA's Institute for Society and Genetics. He also directs the UCLA Heat Lab. He is an authority on the planetary crisis posed by extreme heat and how the negative effects of heat have come to be unequally distributed.
“There are a lot of people in this country who do work in very difficult, extreme heat conditions so that the rest of us can benefit—that’s thermal inequality. People like Amazon warehouse workers, agricultural laborers, and postal carriers work in the heat so the rest of us can get our food, so we can get our packages.
“There are laws to protect some workers from extreme heat, but depending on how you’re employed and paid, it might not make sense for you to take time off or file a complaint. These aren’t usually salaried jobs. If you’re paid by the bushel for picking produce, you might choose not to take a shade and water break because you can’t afford it.”
Smoke threatens birds and other wildlife
Sanderfoot, a postdoctoral scholar in UCLA’s La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science, studies the impacts of wildfire smoke on birds. She is director of Project Phoenix, a new statewide community science program that investigates the effects of smoke on bird behavior and species distributions.
“Lab studies show us that smoke contributes to respiratory distress in birds, meaning they have difficulty breathing. Smoke also leads to oxidative stress, immune suppression, subsequent illness and even death by carbon monoxide poisoning, the same as with humans. But birds may experience health effects at lower levels of smoke because they are more susceptible to air pollution that we are. Plus, birds can’t really cough to clear their airways.”
“One study found wild geese flew much higher than usual and took other extreme detours to avoid the wildfire smoke in 2020. Their migration took twice as long as usual. They may have avoided the smoke, but they went hundreds of miles off course, consuming far more energy than usual.”
The force of nature driving record temps
Hall is a climate scientist, atmospheric physicist and professor in the department of atmospheric and oceanic sciences with the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability who has worked to create models of future warming, including changes in extreme heat. He also serves as interim faculty director for UCLA’s Sustainable LA Grand Challenge.
“This sudden increase in record-high temperatures is exactly what we expect in a warming world during a warm El Niño year. Heat waves are part of the natural variation of the climate that we expect in summer, but what’s unusual about the current extreme heat in the U.S. and elsewhere in the northern hemisphere are the scale and duration. This is unusually widespread, lasting unusually long, and exactly the types of events we expect to become more common in a warming world.”
Wildfire smoke becomes a nationwide threat
Dr. David Eisenman
Eisenman, a physician and professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, studies the effects of disasters — including wildfires, climate change and heat waves — on public health.
“Wildfire smoke and the pollution it causes is a national issue, and this year it’s affected the East Coast. Hopefully this will help politicians recognize that wildfire smoke is not just a Western issue. This is a time for people to pressure their legislators and officials on what they’re going to do to protect them from wildfire smoke.
“In Australia, in California, we’ve seen these orange skies before, but for people on the East Coast, it still feels like science fiction. This will happen again on the East Coast, and they need to prepare for it.”