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We can’t ignore the role of climate change in Fort McMurray

We need to acknowledge the role our warming planet plays in forest fires

planetFire
Image Credits: Nancy Chen

When a tragedy like the fire earlier this month in Fort McMurray strikes, we absolutely have to acknowledge the terrible loss of homes, the displacement of thousands of residents, and the devastation it leaves behind. But we also have to talk about the causes of the tragedy, and that includes climate change.

To ignore that the intensity of the fire in Fort McMurray is a result of increased temperatures, longer fire seasons, and hotter, drier weather would be to ignore an opportunity to illustrate what can happen in these conditions and what is likely to be more frequent as these conditions are only exacerbated by climate change.

Due to climate change and higher average temperatures, fire seasons are being extended and we are experiencing more frequent, intense fires. According to Natural Resources Canada, “recent years have seen more destructive fires in terms of area covered,” as the CBC reports. David Andison, an adjunct professor in the faculty of forestry at UBC, was quoted by the CBC as saying that “climate change models and research all point to the idea that fire season is going to be longer in the coming years, and the fires will be more severe.”

The question isn’t whether we should be talking about this reality, but how. There is no need to frame the dialogue as a kind of ‘I told you so’ message; but we do need to point out that there is more where that came from, and our wildfire seasons are going to become longer and more intense. Mentioning the link to climate change is not a negation of the suffering that the residents of Fort McMurray have experienced, and it is not meant to be insensitive. It is, in fact, only natural to question the cause of tragic events.

The question isn’t whether we should be talking about this reality, but how.

It’s a shame that climate change — a topic that affects us all and threatens our very survival — has become politicized and taboo. Green Party leader Elizabeth May was met with backlash when she stated that there is a link between forest fires and climate change, even though she was simply speaking the truth.

Justin Trudeau said, “What we are focussed on right now on [sic] is giving the people of Fort McMurray, and across Alberta, the kind of support that they need.” While saying that it’s not time to lay blame, he sidestepped the question of climate change and avoided angering those at either end of the political spectrum. By taking the ambivalent, balanced approach, Trudeau may have also made May look too reactionary — but ignoring the link is a detriment to us all. 

It’s never too soon to talk about something that affects everyone, and we can’t ignore that climate change played a role in this devastation. With an unusually dry and warm winter, low precipitation, early snow melt, and a warmer than usual spring — all effects of climate change — the fire quickly grew out of control.

When it comes to the cause, we are all to blame. We are all users of oil. We are all responsible for acknowledging the connection to these extreme weather events and taking action to prevent the continued warming of our planet.   

  • VooDude

    ”…many consider wildfire as an accelerating problem, with widely held perceptions both in the media and scientific papers of increasing fire occurrence, severity and resulting losses. However, important exceptions aside, the quantitative evidence available does not support these perceived overall trends. Instead, global area burned appears to have overall declined over past decades, and there is increasing evidence that there is less fire in the global landscape today than centuries ago. … For the western USA, they indicate little change overall, and also that area burned, at high severity, has overall declined compared to pre-European settlement.”

    ”…a common perception that fires have increased or worsened in recent years around the world [11,26–29]. Where these reports are accompanied by quantitative observations, they are often based on short timescales and regional data for fire incidence or area burned, which do not necessarily reflect broader temporal or spatial realities.”

    ”Analysis of charcoal records in sediments [31] and isotope-ratio records in ice cores [32] suggest that global biomass burning during the past century has been lower than at any time in the past 2000 years.”

    ”… a general decrease of global fire activity at least in past centuries…”

    ”There was indeed an increase in the number of fires from the early 1980s to the late 1990s. However, the past three decades have been characterized by an overall decrease in area burned, and also a decrease in the number of fires from mid-2000 (figure 2) [37,38]. This is often not recognized even within the scientific community, with some authors continuing to underpin the importance of their fire-related research with an increase of fire in this region [16,39].”

    ”In contrast to what is widely perceived, the detected global area burned has actually decreased slightly over this period [between 1996 and 2012] (by 1% yr−1). A more recent global analysis by van Lierop et al. [36], based primarily on nationally reported fire data supplemented by burned area estimates from satellite observations, shows an overall decline in global area burned of 2% yr−1 for the period 2003–2012.”

    ”… there is increasing evidence suggesting that there is overall less fire in the landscape today than there has been centuries ago [34,101], …”

    Doerr, Santín 2016 Global trends in wildfire and its impacts: perceptions versus realities in a changing world” Philosophical Transactions B

    http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing[DOT].org/content/371/1696/20150345

  • VooDude

    “Although an increasing frequency of forest fires has been suggested as a consequence of global warming, there are no empirical data that have shown a climatically driven change in fire frequency since the warming that has followed the end of the ‘Little Ice Age’. We present here evidence from fire and tree-ring chronologies that the post-‘Little Ice Age’ climate change has profoundly decreased the frequency of fires in the northwestern Québec boreal forest. A 300-year fire history (AD 1688-1988) from the Lake Duparquet area (48°28′ N, 79°17′ W) shows an important decrease, starting 100 years ago, in the number and the extent of fires. … The contradictory results between predicted and observed effects of warming on fire frequency call into question our present capability to generalize the effect of increasing CO2 levels on fire frequency.”

    Bergeron, Yves, and Sylvain Archambault 1993. “Decreasing frequency of forest fires in the southern boreal zone of Quebec and its relation to global warming since the end of the’Little Ice Age’.” The Holocene

    http://hol.sagepub [DOT]com/content/3/3/255

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