In North America, wildfires are destroying vast swaths of forest and
creating massive plumes of smoke which extend across the continent and all the
way to the Mid-Atlantic.
Territories, and Ontario. As of August 6, a total of 3,840 wildfires have
destroyed over 3,508,582 million acres so far this year.
August 12 there were a total of 41 large wildfires burning in the U.S. Ten in
California, ten in Washington and ten in Oregon. A total of eight fires are
burning in Idaho and three in Montana. The land mass impacted by these fires
totals 714,044 acres.
Central analysis, wildfires are on the increase. Their examination of 42
years of U.S. Forest Service records for 11 Western states shows that there are
now 7 times more fires greater than 10,000 acres each year and nearly 5 times
more fires larger than 25,000 acres each year. There are also twice as many
fires over 1,000 acres each year, with an average of more than 100 per year from
2002 through 2011, compared with less than 50 during the 1970’s. On average,
wildfires burn twice as much land area each year as they did 4
The price tag for U.S. wildfires this year is around
$1.4 billion, which is 40 percent more than the amount of money budgeted.
The costs of wildfires are not only material, they also produce smoke
which can harm and even kill. Wildfires produce “fine particle” air pollution,
which is a direct threat to human health even during relatively short exposures.
The fine particulates in wildfire smoke can penetrate deep into the lungs,
increasing the mortality risk and health problems. This risk is particularly
pronounced for those who have respiratory illnesses, heart conditions and the
showed that the air quality from wildfires is worse than air pollution levels in
Beijing. According to the study, wildfires burning within 50-100 miles of a city
routinely caused air quality to be 5 to 15 times worse than normal, and often
2-3 times worse than the worst non-fire day of the
quality in parts of the northern Rockies, the Great Lakes and the Northeast.
Last year Grants Pass, Oregon recorded one of the worst examples of poor air
quality attributable to wildfire. For nine days last summer, Grants Pass had air
quality so poor that it was unhealthy for anyone to be outside. On five of those
days, fine particle pollution was literally off the charts — higher than the
local air quality meter could read.
often pushed into the stratosphere by the heat from fires. Smoke from Canada’s
wildfires has even crossed the Atlantic and made its way to
recently by President Obama’s Science Adviser John
Holdren. The day after wildfires prompted California Governor Jerry Brown to
declare a state of national emergency and mobilize the national guard, Holdren
pointed out that the situation is getting worse. He explained that the length of
U.S. fire seasons has expanded by 60 to 80 days since the 1980s, and the amount
of acres consumed by wildfires each year has doubled to more than seven million.
Hotter springs and summers
make the fire season last longer. Hotter, dryer weather produces more fuel for
these fires which feed on a mix of desiccated kindling. Heat dries out dead
vegetation on the forest floor which increases the number of fires and causes
more energetic fires. Climate
change also increases the incidence and intensity of wildfires through reduced
levels of snowpack, and earlier snow melt.
In California, a state
being devastated by a three
year drought, at least 3,600 fires have burned about 63 square miles so far
this summer. In 2013, there were a total of 3,000 fires in the state. The
five-year average for this time of year is about 2,500 fires and 54 square miles
The Northwest Territories
may ring the Arctic, but even here, high temperatures are fueling wildfires. The
hottest and driest weather in half a century has caused the worst fire season
ever in the Territories.
We are already experiencing warmer temperatures, and
as explained in the IPCC 4th Assessment Report, summer temperatures in western
North America could increase between 3.6 F and 9 F by the middle of this
As the planet continues to
warm, wildfires will increase in intensity and size. The combination of high
temperatures and low precipitation could drive a six-fold increase in wildfires
over the next 2 decades.
Fires are often caused by
lightning strikes which are expected to increase as the planet warms. Research
suggests that climate change causes more intense thunderstorms and more
examining the impact of climate change on the world’s lightning and thunderstorm
patterns found that for every one degree Celsius of long-term warming, there
will be a near 10 percent increase in lightning activity.
As explained by the study’s
lead author, Professor Colin Price, head of the Department of Geophysics,
Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at Tel Aviv University in Israel, while there
may be somewhat less thunderstorms, the data shows that these storms have “fifty
percent more lightning activity.”
global warming. This feedback loop is especially pronounced in boreal forests because
they are commonly located on top of peat. When peat is burned it releases far
more carbon than non-peat fires, this accelerates global warming and sets the
stage for more fires.
why wildfires in boreal forests are particularly worrisome. As explained by the
study’s lead author, University of Guelph professor Merritt Turetsky, “half the
world’s soil carbon is locked in northern permafrost and peatland soils. This is
carbon that has accumulated in ecosystems a little bit at a time for thousands
of years, but is being released very rapidly through increased burning.”
are expected to destroy between one and two million hectares of boreal forest
this year alone. Last year, the province of Quebec lost 1.7 million hectares to
fire. To put this in
context, the relatively small Anaktuvuk river fire in 2007 was found to have
released 2.1 million metric
tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Larger, deeper burning fires could
release much larger quantities of carbon.
which warming is leading to larger and more intense fires, releasing more
greenhouse gases and resulting in more warming,” Turetsky
add to it. The widespread burning of boreal forests in particular could
represent a tipping point from which we may not be able to recover.
Source: Global Warming is Real
Climate Change Fueling Forest Fires in the North American West (July 2015)
Wildfires Peat and Carbon
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