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More common weather extremes are not aberrations – they are our new reality

Heatwaves, wildfires, and droughts are raging southern European countries, Canada and the USA. Greece just suffered its deadliest wildfire in more than a century, and one of nearly 90 large fires in the west of the USA destroyed dozens of homes and prompted mass evacuations.

Heavy rains and floods during last July were devastating: hundreds of people were killed in Japan, India, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos, the Philippines, and Sudan.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, last month at least 118 all-time highs were set or tied across the globe. As summers become longer, warmer and drier in different parts of the world, perfect wildfire conditions are created. A paper published on August 1 in the journal Science Advances found that places experiencing drought have warmed faster than the planet as a whole. This increased warming means heatwaves and droughts are happening at the same time more often, as a result, more wildfires occur. About 1500 square miles of the European Union burn every year, but last year fires burned nearly three times that much.

All these extreme events are poised to worsen air quality in many parts of the globe, lifting death toll. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently published a new study that estimates that future climate change, if left unaddressed, is expected to cause roughly 60,000 deaths globally in the year 2030 and 260,000 deaths in 2100 due to climate change’s effect on global air pollution.

The authors of the study focused on the theme of rising levels of air pollution due to the increase in average temperatures throughout the planet. Their calculations showed that hotter temperatures speed up the chemical reactions that create air pollutants like ozone and fine particulate matter, which impact public health.

“As climate change affects air pollutant concentrations, it can have a significant impact on health worldwide, adding to the millions of people who die from air pollution each year, ” said Jason West, who led the research at UNC-Chapel Hill with former graduate student and first author Raquel Silva.

In addition to exacerbating air pollution due to higher temperatures, trees can also boost air pollution. That’s strange but true – plants not only make cities greener, cleaner and healthier, but also increase the ground level ozone pollution, as much as sixty percent worse.

During heat waves, the researchers found previously, trees produce more volatile organic compounds (VOCs). On their own, the trees’ VOCs don’t pose a threat. But once in the air, with the presence of ultraviolet light, they undergo a chemical reaction with nitrogen oxides (NOx) – by-products that occur during combustion of fuel, in particular, diesel, and as a result more ozone forms. Ground level ozone is an air pollutant that irritates respiratory systems, aggravates asthma and chronic lung disease, and can even cause permanent lung damage.

Check out drone footage below overlooking the extent of the devastation caused by wildfires in Sweden and the USA. And there is one question many would like to know the answer to: Will we see more extreme weather events in the future? Climate scientists almost universally agree: Yes! What is your opinion on this?

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