As climate warms, wildfires could make air more deadly, study says

A warming climate could cause more wildfires, and those wildfires could cause the air quality to worsen, a new study finds. 

Multiple universities participated in research published this month in the National Bureau of Economic Research, which found that climate change will fuel additional wildfires that could cost Americans more money and potentially their lives. 

Rather than examining the direct impacts caused by wildfires, this study examines how reduced air quality affects the U.S. 

Air quality is gauged by measuring the prevalence of fine particles, generally 2.5 µm or smaller, in the air. When wildfires burn, the number of fine particles in the air increases. 

The research estimates these additional and larger wildfires would cause 27,800 excess deaths per year by 2050 under a high warming scenario, a 76% increase from estimated 2011-2020 levels. 

The research found climate-induced smoke deaths could result in annual damages of $244 billion through the middle of the century.

“Our projections of smoke PM2.5 and mortality effects can support climate science, health, and policy research to better understand drivers and consequences of smoke PM2.5 under climate change, and help inform policy priorities to address their negative impacts,” the study’s authors wrote. “Our estimates suggest that health costs due to climate-induced smoke PM2.5 could be among the most damaging consequences of climate change in the US. Based on our results, designing and implementing policies to reduce wildfire smoke and protect vulnerable communities has the potential to deliver substantial health benefits now and in the coming decades.”

The World Health Organization said the particulates caused by wildfire smoke can cause numerous adverse health effects. 

“PM2.5 from wildfire smoke is associated with premature deaths in the general population, and can cause and exacerbate diseases of the lungs, heart, brain/nervous system, skin, gut, kidney, eyes, nose and liver,” the World Health Organization said. “It has also been shown to lead to cognitive impairment and memory loss. Firefighters and emergency response workers are also greatly impacted by injuries, burns and smoke inhalation, particularly at high concentrations.”

The authors noted that the study has numerous limitations. One unknown includes where people will decide to live. Living near wildfire-prone areas could cause additional excess deaths, the study warns.