The horrific scenes of loss and destruction on Maui are shocking. Wildfires, while not unheard of in Hawaii, swept across west Maui last week with uncharacteristic speed and ferocity. The culturally and historically important coastal town of Lahaina, on the drier, leeward side of the island, was burnt to the ground, claiming at least 99 lives, a number expected to rise significantly.
Thousands have lost their homes and livelihoods, and Lahaina, once the capital of the Hawaiian kingdom, has been reduced to ash. The fires are now Hawaii’s deadliest single disaster and the most lethal fire in the United States in over a century.
Days before the fires, like other Hawaii residents, I was closely following Hurricane Dora, a category four storm that was cutting a furious path hundreds of miles south of Hawaii. The islands, including Kauai where I live, were spared a direct hit, but as the hurricane passed, meteorologists warned of powerful winds across the state.
On August 8, 2023, the National Weather Service issued a “red flag warning” for the entire state due to extreme wildfire risk. The combination of high winds, low humidity, and an abundance of dry vegetation sat like a loaded weapon until something — possibly downed powerlines — sparked a fire that very quickly spread out of control.
Hawaii’s extensive emergency siren system failed to warn residents as they were engulfed by flames and tried to escape, including many who sought refuge in rough seas.
After visiting the ruins, Hawaii’s governor Josh Green said, “When you see the full extent of the destruction of Lahaina, it will shock you. It does appear like a bomb and fire went off.” He later said, “It is much like an atomic bomb hit Lahaina.” Others compared it to a war zone or an “apocalypse.”
The conflagration that razed Lahaina coincidently came on August 8-9, 2023, the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, where 70,000 Japanese citizens were obliterated in an atomic flash and subsequent firestorms.
The destruction of Nagasaki and Lahaina are incomparable in scale and origin, but they now share an ominous date and serve as terrible reminders that unimaginable death and destruction can strike like a bolt from the blue.
The Ingredients of Wildfires
Today we are living in an age of the unexpected, a time of growing uncertainty when calamitous events, even those that had been foreseen, are described as if they came out of nowhere. With fires still burning, Hawaii’s lieutenant governor Sylvia Luke said, “We never anticipated in this state that a hurricane which did not make impact on our islands will cause this type of wildfires, wildfires that wiped out communities, wildfires that wiped out businesses, wildfires that destroyed homes.”
But in a 2019 letter to the editor of the Maui News, Hawaii-based fire ecologist Clay Trauernicht identified the ingredients of every wildfire (ignition, fuel, and climate) and what happens “when large, tropical grasslands go untended.” Trauernicht wrote: “Just like with climate change, we know what steps will reduce the risk of wildfire, but actually taking these steps will require reinvesting in and, frankly, reimagining our individual and collective responsibility for the larger landscape.”
In a social media post last week, Trauernicht wrote that he would say the same thing today.
After visiting the ruins, Hawaii’s governor Josh Green said, “When you see the full extent of the destruction of Lahaina, it will shock you. It does appear like a bomb and fire went off.” He later said, “It is much like an atomic bomb hit Lahaina.”
Hurricane Dora’s ferocious winds have been called a threat multiplier. That is, they were a force that exacerbated other pre-existing threats, increasing instability and potential risks. Today, these threat multipliers are occurring around the world. This summer alone has seen post-typhoon flooding in China, raging wildfires in Greece, Canada, and Siberia, as well as prolonged record-smashing heatwaves from the southern United States to Italy, Iran, and East Asia.
This month, flooding from a melting glacier in Alaska’s capital destroyed houses along a raging river. Glacial lake outburst flooding endangers millions around the world from India and Pakistan to Peru.
Threat multipliers can make a bad situation worse. Consider the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on everything from a sharp decline in educational performance to global supply chain disruptions. New technologies like artificial intelligence and social media can breed distrust, disinformation, and political divisions. Consider how Russian threats to use nuclear weapons, ongoing instability, and active fighting outside Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant could quickly spiral into a global catastrophe.
For decades, scientists have been warning us of the threats posed by a rapidly warming climate. Belatedly, most people now recognize and accept these threats. At the same time, scientists, doctors, and others have been warning that climate change fuels instability and increases the risk of nuclear war. Climate change is a threat multiplier that can exacerbate political and social instability, food insecurity, and potentially lead to the collapse of governments.
Climate scientists have presented volumes of research illustrating how even a “limited” nuclear war between India and Pakistan could have catastrophic environmental consequences. Beyond the blast, radiation, and firestorms, the use of nuclear weapons has been projected to cause severe and widespread impacts in the atmosphere, on land, and in the sea. Rutgers University environmental sciences professor Alan Robock described the consequences of a nuclear war as “instant climate change.”
The web of threats grows more complicated and less predictable as the climate crisis worsens.
Where Are We Headed?
Red flag warning, three-alarm fire, all hands-on deck — call it what you will, the impacts of threat multipliers are a reckoning for us all. It’s past time to change the trajectory of our relationship with this planet and each other. Are we going to continue down a path that will lead to more disasters, displacement, and instability?
Likewise, are we willing to continue accepting the unacceptable threat of nuclear weapons hanging over us? Scientists, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and others have been warning for decades that the use of a nuclear weapon could lead to a truly unprecedented catastrophe. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and many others continuously warn how a nuclear crisis could unfold with unimaginable speed and pose dangers on a scale that could dwarf the suffering caused by climate change, pandemics, and all other wars combined.
“Impossible,” some say. “Don’t be alarmist.” We want to believe such horrors will not happen, but reoccurring “once-in-a-century” floods and fires and fast-spreading viruses have shown us that these threats can and do eventually manifest. Fighting climate change with a seriousness of commitment not yet seen is necessary if we want our children and grandchildren to have a habitable planet. At the same time, stopping the spread and reliance on nuclear weapons by a handful of states is also necessary. Climate change and nuclear weapons both threaten our survival and are two sides of the same coin, and both urgently demand the attention of a planet already feeling the heat of myriad threats, both unexpected and long overdue.