Top view of a wildfire as it forms a circular shape and ravages land.

Photograph by Juan Silva / Getty Images

Can Climate Change Bring Wildfires to the Northeast?


Apple TV+’s new sci-fi Extrapolations depicts a future where wildfires reach New York. The Frontline explores what the science suggests.

In the first episode of Apple TV+’s latest climate-focused sci-fi Extrapolations, we see New York’s Adirondack Mountains ablaze. The year is 2037, 14 years from the present day. As the climate crisis has shown us, a lot can change from one year to the next—but could carbon pollution actually result in huge northeastern wildfires that burn out of control and create air quality hazards like the ones we currently see out West


These sorts of forest fires are virtually non-existent in the region right now, which spans from Maine down to Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, climate change could create—and is already creating—the conditions that could make wildfires in northeastern forests more likely. Scientists disagree on whether these fires may resemble the ones out West or when exactly they could happen, but they agree that more wildfires are not only probable but also a cause for concern. This scenario isn’t certain or inevitable by any means, though. Whether it unfolds depends upon how our world leaders act today: Extrapolations portrays a terrifying (but realistic) future should officials continue to allow the irresponsible release of greenhouse gas emissions. 


The entire world appears on fire in the show, which was created by Scott Z. Burns (Contagion) and features actors Meryl Streep (Don’t Look Up) and Kit Harington (Game of Thrones). Skies are a hazy orange in New York City, as well as in cities like Tel Aviv, Israel, and Cali, Colombia. All because of nearby forest fires. 


“Everybody is living in a world of smoke,” said executive producer Dorothy Fortenberry, who has worked on other shows including The Handmaid’s Tale and The 100.


The team behind Extrapolations relied on science to paint these scenes. They used projected levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to determine the show’s temperature rise timeline. In the show, the planet’s temperature exceeds the Paris Agreement’s goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial temperatures and reaches nearly 2.6 degrees Celsius by 2070, the year at which the show ends. 


“The guiding principle in all of our thinking was always, What if things keep going pretty much the way that they are?” Fortenberry said. “We weren’t looking for a dystopia.”


In a climate scenario by the International Energy Agency where this temperature rise happens in 2100, the world would see millions of premature deaths over the next few decades from air pollution alone. Indeed, Extrapolations invents a fictional health condition called summer heart based on real data on how extreme heat can cause heart defects that are present from birth. In the show, poor air quality can trigger cardiac stress among those with summer heart. Children are especially vulnerable.


“We’re trying to show the ways climate change can affect everybody,” Fortenberry said. “Climate change isn’t something that you can escape from.”


This is what humanity faces should policymakers continue with business as usual and delay an energy transition away from fossil fuels. Announcements and targets mean nothing without actual implementation and policy changes.


We’re already seeing the consequences of inaction. In California, wildfires are becoming more deadly and destructive as a result of increased heat and drought. The Northeast, on the other hand, can feel like a sanctuary—but climate change is threatening the smoke-free solace many have grown to enjoy in the region.


“New England has a lot of forests that can potentially burn and create conditions similar to what we see in the western U.S.,” said Aaron Weiskittel, director of the University of Maine’s Center for Research on Sustainable Forests, who can see this reality unfolding in 10-20 years. “There is potential and there is precedent that fires can pose a risk.”


Much like the story out West, northeastern Indigenous groups used to set fires to manage the landscape. “Historically, they were the stewards of the forest,” Weiskittel said. Fire played an important role in maintaining particular ecosystems, especially the fire-adapted barrens habitats where key pollinators live. Research suggests that much of the region used to burn in eight- to 50-year intervals. With the arrival of European colonizers, the Northeast’s fire regime ended, and fire suppression started. 


“All these forests historically burned on some interval, and a lot of them have not burned for a very long time now,” said Dr. Michael Gallagher, a research ecologist at the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Research Station. “So much of the landscape is overdue.”


Climate change is threatening to bring fire back in a way it hasn’t existed before: alongside homes and buildings that know nothing of it.


“The forests that we have in a lot of the Northeast right now are probably more mature than forests here have ever been in hundreds of years,” Gallagher said. “In that time, people have moved into all different nooks and crannies of the forest.”

“Everybody is living in a world of smoke.”

Dorothy Fortenberry
Character from climate change show, Extrapolations, on apple tv looks up while leaning against a tree in a forest. She is surrounded by smoke from a nearby wildfire.
The scene in which the Adirondacks are on fire. (Photograph courtesy of Apple TV+)

Wildfires need three key ingredients: oxygen, heat, and fuel. Oxygen is unavoidable. As for heat, we’re talking about enough heat to cause a spark—like lightning. A paper published in Nature Communications in February found that lightning-caused wildfires may increase in the 2090s if emissions continue. As for fuel, northeastern forests have plenty of that. “What matters—and will matter in the future—is how dry that fuel is,” said Andrew Barton, a biology professor at the University of Maine at Farmington. The Northeast has faced “historic drought conditions” on and off since 2000, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, creating drier forest conditions in some areas.


“We can’t say with any certainty that we’re going to get more drought or less drought or more rain or less rain,” said Dr. Joseph Charney, a research meteorologist at the U.S. Forest Service. “We can say that we don’t have a lot of certainty about that.”


Other threats, however, are more certain. When you look at the data, wildfires don’t present the biggest risk to forests in the region. There are non-native insects, as well as increased heat stress, said Weiskittel at the University of Maine. When invasive species kill trees or heat leaves them sick, the trees become more fuel for fires, creating a potentially “catastrophic scenario” for forests, he said. 


Current climate models don’t account for the ways new invasive species are transforming the ecosystem and fire behavior, said Gallagher of the U.S. Forest Service. He works directly in forests and conducts fire experiments and prescribed burns. He’s witnessed firsthand how wildfires operate in trees ravaged by invasive species like bark beetles and spongy moths. Fires can literally move inside tree trunks damaged by spongy moths and spew embers from tree tops beyond where firefighters can reach. It’s like someone throwing matches from 150 feet above, Gallagher explained.


“You could have a nice controlled fire on the ground, but now all these tree tops catch on fire, and they never used to catch on fire,” he said. “It happens more and more where lots of trees will be on fire like that … Sometimes, it’ll make it really hard to control a fire that wouldn’t ordinarily be hard to control.”


Luckily for the Northeast, states have more access to water than western states where water availability is creating tension. However, forests help keep the Northeast wet; they store moisture and reduce fire risk. “Once that disappears, it’s like dominoes,” Weiskittel said. 


Helen Poulos, an adjunct assistant professor of environmental studies at Wesleyan University who researches fire ecology, wants to see more controlled fires return to the region. Its loss has created what she calls “a dramatic shift” in the types of trees in forests and the buildup of fuel. The historic prevalence of fire in the northeastern U.S. was not like what existed out West before colonization, but both played key ecological roles. Figuring out what that relationship will look like in the present and future will require rediscovering that past legacy through experimentation.


“We don’t have a lot of baselines or targets because fire has been gone for so long,” Poulos said. “We’re still trying to figure out what are the most effective methods to reduce fire risk and create healthy communities.”


Television shows like Extrapolations force the public to contemplate the what-ifs. What if governments continue to collude with polluters? What if lightning strikes down in New York’s beloved Adirondack Mountains during a dry spell? What if rain doesn’t come for months? What if New York City’s skies turn to haze? 


None of this is impossible, but it’s not inevitable, either. This doesn’t have to be the world’s fate. As the U.N. panel of climate scientists reminded us last month, there’s still time to change course. The future of humanity is counting on it.

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