In North America the summer of 2015 has just gotten underway and already fires are raging across vast swaths of the continent. Forest fires are burning across the Canadian west and Alaska. These fires are getting worse and they are increasingly being attributed to climate change. Tens of thousands of people have had to be evacuated. In the sparsely populated province of Saskatchewan alone 13,000 people had to be moved, making this the largest such evacuation in the province’s history.
These forest fires are creating massive amounts of smoke that have blanketed much of the continent. The toxic smoke has taken a toll on air quality prompting warnings in many places across North America.
“Wildfire smoke can pose serious health risks to people hundreds of miles away from the sources of fires,” said Kim Knowlton, a senior scientist with NRDC. “Wildfire smoke already clouds the skies of millions of Americans and because climate change will fuel more wildfires, that danger will rise.”
Alaska recorded its warmest year on record last year and the state is warming twice as fast as other states.
A 2013 PNAS study which examined lake sediments in Alaska found that the number of forest fires has increasing. A 2015 report from Climate Central found that Alaska’s fire season is last 40 percent longer than 50 years ago.
Alaska is not the only place where forest fires on on the increase, thousands of wildfires have burned across Canada in 2015. According to John Innes, the dean of UBC’s faculty of forestry, these fires are attributable at least in part to climate change and he went on to say the situation is likely to become far worse a few decades from now.
There are a number of dangerous feedback loops involving forest fires and climate change. The fires not bleed carbon into the atmosphere, the forests that are lost eliminate important carbon sinks. There are also other more complex feedback loops between forest fires and climate change.
One of the most dramatic impacts from these fires involves the loss of permafrost in northern Canada and Alaska. There is an estimated 1.4 trillion tons of carbon in the world’s permafrost. That is twice the amount currently in the atmosphere. If the carbon locked in the permafrost were to be released it would drive runaway climate change. Another permafrost feedback loop of concern involves Arctic warming and algae blooms.
A recent Canadian Wildland Fire Information System (CWFIS) report reads, “fire activity has increased dramatically and is now well above average for this time of year.”
One of the worst hit areas is British Columbia where hundreds of wildfires are burning across the province. In 2014 BC recorded its third worst forest fire season in the province’s history. A draft report released last year by the Wildfire Management Branch said these large fires are expected to increase as climate change progresses. The report says climate change will mean “an ever growing wildfire risk and threat to communities, critical infrastructure and natural values in British Columbia.”
The Edmonston Sun reported that that there are some 1,200 fires that have burned almost three quarters of a million acres in Alberta since April 1.
The CBC reported that fires in Saskatchewan are “unprecedented” for the region, noting that the area currently burning is about 10 times the average. Some are predicting that many of the fires in Saskatchewan will burn until the fall.
As explained by Innes, “longer term, we will see more fires. We will see the fire season extending, it will start earlier, it will go on later, and the fires that we get will be more intense.”
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