‘Ecological anxiety’ and the psychological toll of choking wildfire smoke

September 20, 2020
'Ecological anxiety' and the psychological toll of choking wildfire smoke

Liana Zwick and her husband spent last weekend holed up together at home, processing their last batch of greenhouse summer tomatoes. The couple worked quietly in their West Kootenay rancher, windows shut tight with the smell of bonfire outside, leaving the yard cleanup for another day.

Years ago, it might have been cosy. It isn’t anymore. 

Thousands of British Columbians like the Zwicks retreated inside last week after dense, grey smoke drifted north from catastrophic wildfires in the United States, blocking the sun and fouling the air.

The air quality around the Zwicks’ home in Castlegar, B.C., in the southeastern part of the province, was rated among the worst in the world on Saturday. Jim Zwick, 62, lives with a rare, chronic lung disease and can’t be out in that kind of environment.

“It absolutely is a feeling of being trapped and the uncertainty of not knowing for how long. It feels very eerie and almost apocalyptic. It sounds all very dramatic, but it’s hard not to feel that kind of anxiety,” Liana Zwick told What on Earth host Laura Lynch.

“We don’t recognize our landscape when we look outside our windows.”

Looking northwest over the West Kootenay Valley on a clear, summer day. (Submitted by Liana Zwick)

Looking northwest over Castlegar, B.C., on Sept. 14, after wildfire smoke drifted north from the western United States. (Submitted by Liana Zwick)

Smoke in the summer has become commonplace in a province with a warming climate marked by longer, nastier wildfire seasons. As the environmental catastrophes become more regular, so too do the psychological consequences — a sensation called “ecological grief” or “ecological anxiety,” caused by seeing loss in the natural world.

“It’s a whole spectrum of natural human response to very scary and very concerning situations,” said Ashlee Cunsolo, who studies the links between ecological change and mental health at Memorial University’s Labrador Institute in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, N.L. She’s also the founding dean of the institute’s School of Arctic and Subarctic Studies.

“You might not be at the front lines of the wildfires … but you certainly are still affected when you see the smoke,” Cunsolo told CBC Radio’s What on Earth. “It’s also a reminder of the suffering that other people and other ecosystems are going through — a reminder of the precarity of our own safety.”

Cunsolo said the emotional response can range from acute feelings of fear, dread and anxiety to unshakeable unease, helplessness and sleeplessness. Those feelings have been exacerbated this year as the smoke robs strained B.C. families of one of the things they’ve relied on to decompress during the pandemic: getting some fresh air outdoors.

Ashlee Cunsolo during a trip outside Rigolet, Nunatsiavut, Labrador in 2016. Cunsolo studies the effect that climate change has on mental health at Memorial University’s Labrador Institute in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, N.L. (Submitted by Ashlee Cunsolo)

“When that’s taken away, too, finding other ways to cope becomes much, much harder,” Cunsolo said of the outdoors. “The frustration is extremely natural and makes perfect sense.”

The psychological phenomenon, Cunsolo said, is growing more common as short- and long-term climate change-related events become increasingly regular closer to home. Other researchers agreed, saying the public needs to start preparing — mentally, physically and financially — for the reality that air quality might be poor on a more consistent basis.

“There’s no question that these have become more frequent events…. Summer now means a high potential for smoke in some place at some time,” said Michael Brauer, a professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver who researches health and air pollution. 

“This is what we are going to have to deal with.”

The health effects of smoky air on the general population, such as a scratchy throat or a dull headache, are temporary and reversible. For those most at risk — including the elderly or people with underlying health conditions — the haze can lead to severe reactions, including chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness and heart palpitations.

“[It’s] to the extent that we even see increased deaths in response to these kinds of smoke events,” Brauer said.

Several cities opened clean-air shelters after the U.S. wildfire smoke settled over the province, offering spaces with air filters as a reprieve for people struggling with the toxic air. Brauer said buying air filters or purifiers and managing pre-existing respiratory conditions should become part of seasonal planning for families in B.C. 

Jim and Liana Zwick usually have a view of the West Kootenay Valley on one of their regular walking routes in Castlegar, B.C. (Submitted by Liana Zwick)

The view from the Zwicks’ usual walking route on Sept. 12. (Submitted by Liana Zwick)

The Zwicks, who have lived together in Castlegar for 30 years, now regularly face the possibility of a natural disaster, with the risk of flooding in the spring and wildfires in the summer. They pull out portable air-filtration machines whenever the smoke rolls around, replacing their regular outdoor activities with books and Netflix while they wait, cooped up, for the haze to pass.

Asked whether they might move in order to find higher ground and better air to breathe, Liana Zwick, 53, gave a hearty laugh before letting her voice fall.

“To realize that the pattern overall is one where this is going to happen with greater frequency, that is a big worry,” she said.

“Of course, safety is first and paramount mostly in our minds. But where would you go that any corner of the planet is not going to be affected by climate change?”

Listen to What on Earth on CBC Radio 1 every Sunday at 12:30 p.m., 1 p.m. in Newfoundland.

You can also subscribe to What on Earth on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also listen anytime on CBC Listen.

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