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Opinion | The Fires Sweeping Across Texas Offer a Terrifying Warning

For weeks now, red flag warnings from the National Weather Service indicating elevated wildfire risk have been popping up all across the United States — from the Mexican border to the Great Lakes and the Florida panhandle. Similar warnings are appearing north of the Canadian border. On Feb. 20, the province of Alberta, the Texas-size petro-state above Montana, declared the official start of fire season. This was nearly two weeks earlier than last year and six weeks earlier than a couple of decades ago. Alberta is in the heart of Canada, a famously cold and snowy place, and yet some 50 wildfires are burning across that province. In neighboring British Columbia, where I live, there are nearly 100 active fires, a number of which carried over from last year’s legendary fire season (the worst in Canadian history) linked to low snowpack and above-average winter temperatures.

It is alarming to see these fires and warnings in what is supposed to be the dead of winter, but fire, as distracting and dangerous as it is, is merely one symptom. What is happening in North America is not a regional aberration; it’s part of a global departure, what climate scientists call a phase shift. The past year has seen virtually every metric of planetary distress lurch into uncharted territory: sea surface temperature, air temperature, polar ice loss, fire intensity — you name it, it is off the charts. It was 72 degrees Fahrenheit in Wisconsin on Tuesday and 110 degrees Fahrenheit in Paraguay; large portions of the North Pacific and the South Atlantic are running more than five degrees Fahrenheit above normal.

Thomas Smith, an environmental geographer at the London School of Economics, summed it up this way for the BBC in July, “I’m not aware of a similar period when all parts of the climate system were in record-breaking or abnormal territory.” And with these extremes comes lethality: More than 130 souls perished last month in wildfires outside Valparaiso, Chile — more than the number of dead in the Maui fire last August or the Paradise, Calif., fire in 2018 — making them the world’s deadliest since Australia’s Black Saturday fires in 2009.

Historically, it has been humans who have outpaced the natural world. From arrowheads to artificial intelligence, our species has progressed steadily faster than geologic time. But now, geologic time — specifically, atmospheric time and ocean time — is moving as fast, in some cases faster, than we are — faster than technology, faster than history. The world we thought we knew is changing under our feet because we changed it.

Exxon’s own scientists foresaw these fossil fuel-driven anthropogenic changes about a half- century ago, but we’re still not ready for them, and neither are most of our fellow creatures. If I learned one thing from writing about wildfires, it is that this hotter, less stable world is not the new normal. We are entering clima incognita, the unknown climate. Here be dragons, and some of them are fires 20 miles wide.

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