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Lake Tahoe is one of one of the most majestic and picturesque places on Earth. Mark Twain once said, “The air up there (Lake Tahoe) in the clouds is very pure and fine. Bracing and delicious. And why shouldn’t it be? It is the same the angels breathe.” Lake Tahoe offers some of the best skiing, hiking and other outdoor activities in California and Western Nevada. Unfortunately, the lake’s basin and many of the surrounding residences and second homes are now tragic and well-known victims of climate change in 2021.
As toxic smoke and the unpredictable Caldor Fire barrels toward the area, it’s almost inconceivable that this small patch of highly valued real estate straddling the California and Nevada border just months ago topped a list of mountain getaways for wealthy individuals and families freed from their desks during the Covid-19 pandemic. Those that moved to the area during the pandemic primarily did so using gas-powered vehicles (which still account for approximately 98% of cars on the road).
Assuming minimal traffic, Lake Tahoe is only a three-hour drive east of San Francisco and approximately four hours from Silicon Valley. Thanks to its proximity to major hubs in California, luxury home sales in a pre-existing high market have skyrocketed since the pandemic began, causing the median value of homes in the area to reach levels as high as the altitude. Notwithstanding the fact that the lake’s water level dropped after two consecutive dry winters, it seems many want to live amongst the beauty of the trees and the lake.
Truckee, California, a town a few miles just west of the lake and right off Interstate 80—the primary highway that runs from San Francisco, through Sacramento, by Lake Tahoe, and on to Reno—saw the largest percentage increase in the number of resident families nationally during the height of the pandemic. While Truckee does boast an Amtrak station in the middle of its charming downtown, the primary way to get to the Lake Tahoe area is by personal vehicle, most of which still emit greenhouse gases (GHG) into the pristine mountain air.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has stated that GHG emissions from transportation account for approximately 29% of total U.S. GHG, making transportation the largest single contributor to climate change. An increase in the atmospheric concentrations of GHG produces a warming effect by trapping the sun’s heat and hindering its release back into space, thereby causing global warming. Development in the Lake Tahoe area requires the removal of trees, which also contributes to climate change by releasing the stored carbon in the trees as carbon dioxide when they are cut down.
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Now, unfortunately, due to the approaching fire, residents of South Lake Tahoe and elsewhere in the Lake Tahoe basin are displaced. Evacuation orders were in place on Monday, August 30. And, with very few ways to get in and out of the area, a monstrous traffic jam initially hampered the evacuees’ escape from danger. Cars sat idling on the single or two-lane highways; the gas-powered ones pumping more GHG into the atmosphere, thereby worsening the impact on the climate. In a sad and ironic twist of fate, while evacuees from the Caldor Fire were, of course, saving themselves and reducing the strain on the limited resources available for forcible evacuation, they were also forced to contribute to the problem.
While the evacuation itself had a minor effect on the warming problems that give rise to more wildfires, the broader impact must be addressed. For mountain resort towns like Lake Tahoe—so long as the primary method of commuting to and around remains the gas-powered personal vehicle—visiting and living in such places will only hasten their demise. And homebuyers and urban escapees may think twice about buying properties susceptible to climate change, as they are already doing in coastal Florida. Eventually, the perils of climate change may bring people back to living in more urban settings, which might be safer from the more immediate impacts of climate change, though for how much longer, nobody knows.
If electric vehicles overtake gas-powered cars and other transportation options are more available, perhaps national treasures like Lake Tahoe will be safer. In the meantime, prayers and positive thoughts are and should be sent for all those in Lake Tahoe and other areas suffering from disasters.