The megafires routinely produce whole new fire-weather systems, including what are called pyrocumulonimbus clouds, laced with lightning and whipped by tornadoes, which can shoot toxic aerosols all the way through the troposphere into the lower stratosphere. It was long believed that only volcanic eruptions were capable of doing this. It wasn’t until 1998 that scientists discovered pyrocumulonimbus clouds from megafires doing it, too. So far this year in Canada, there have been 90 of them.
“They can’t stop these fires,” says the fire historian Steve Pyne. “I mean, they could have 50,000 firefighters there now, and it’s not going to change it. We could have 200 more air tankers. Are they going to be able to stop these fires that are going? No.”
In “Under a White Sky,” Elizabeth Kolbert memorably posed the paradox of climate adaptation, in which the disruption of the natural world seems to require further interventions, this way: “If there is to be an answer to the problem of control, it’s going to be more control.” But the specter of hundreds of new fires raging near the Canadian Arctic — or in Siberia or the Australian bush — is a reminder that when it comes to rolling climate change, total control, at least, may be an illusion, although one on which we have intuitively erected our hopes for navigating a hotter future.
“Humans have always moved at a different pace than the natural world,” Vaillant says. “But suddenly there’s a syncing up, with the natural world now moving as fast or faster than we are — faster than humans, faster than technology, faster than history.” In the past, he says, we “had a ‘we don’t negotiate with terrorists’ attitude with nature. When it did things that we didn’t like, we suppressed them. Fire is now forcing us to negotiate.”
Negotiate with whom, though? In recent years, warming posed a number of thorny questions about responsibility and sovereignty in a time of planetary crisis: who might pay for climate damage punishing the Global South but produced by emissions from the Global North, how a net-zero-emissions world might respond to a rogue nation’s recklessly burning fossil fuels, what could prevent single nations from undertaking adaptations that might wreck their neighbors’ microclimates, what damage could be wrought by a single billionaire’s undertaking a global geoengineering scheme or a single terrorist cell torpedoing it.