Sunday, May 08, 2016

Bigger, Hotter, More Frequent

Canadians have been appalled by the Fort McMurray Fire. But, Ed Strurzik writes, some people saw it coming:

Fire scientists and fire managers actually saw this coming back in 2009 when 70 of them gathered in Victoria to address the issue of climate change and what impact it was going to have on the forest fire situation in Canada. Each one of them was already well aware that fires were burning bigger, hotter, faster, and in more unpredictable ways than ever before.

''We're exceeding thresholds all the time,'' said Mike Flannigan, who was at the time a research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service. ''We'd better start acting soon.''

The dragon in the woods is climate change:

There are a number of reasons why fires are going to burn bigger, hotter, faster, and more often in the future. There are more people living and working in the boreal forest, and like it or not, people start a lot of fires -- more than half that occur in Canada. And in fighting fires so religiously to protect valuable timber, oil sands, pipelines and communities, we've created an unnaturally large amount of old growth forest in the boreal, where spruce and pine are prevalent and highly combustible.
But there isn't an expert out there who doubts that climate change is the biggest reason why we're losing the battle to control wildfires.

For every one degree of warming, there needs to be 15 per cent more precipitation to keep the fine combustible fuels on the ground sufficiently moist. So if temperatures rise by about three degrees by the end of the century, which is as conservative an estimate as there is, we'll need 45 per cent more rain. Flannigan says there is nothing in the climate models that suggest we'll come close. In fact, we're likely to get less precipitation in some areas.

More heat is also going to result in more lightning, which currently accounts for 85 per cent of the area burned in Canada. Typically, lightning occurs in clusters where there can be 50 to 100 strikes in a day. But increasingly we're seeing lightning events such as the one that occurred in Alaska last year when a slow-moving storm unleashed 50,000 lightning strikes in just five days. More than five million acres of trees were destroyed in a fire season that turned out to be second worst in the state's history. No one had ever seen anything like it.

What's more, insects like the mountain pine beetle and the spruce bark beetle that kill or weaken mature spruce and pine will continue to proliferate in these warmer environments, adding fuel for combustion.

Premier Brad Wall wants a national fire strategy --  a good idea. But, so far, he -- and many others -- have had little policy to offer on climate change. Without those policies, fires like the Fort Mac Fire will be bigger, hotter and more frequent.


Lorne said...

I read this article yesterday, Owen, and my thought was that it encapsulates a truth that needs to be spoken, no matter how many try to subvert that message by categorizing it as climate-change triumphalism. In my mind, that is simply another tactic the denialists are employing to stifle discussion.

Owen Gray said...

The evidence is everywhere, Lorne. Only the willfully ignorant refuse to recognize it.

Steve said...

We need a clearcutting stratagy. Remember when clear cutting was a bad thing, time to think again. In Europe the forests are managed like farmers fields. We need armies of robots clear cutting and replanting fire resistant patterns like the ants of God.

Owen Gray said...

Certainly, Steve, we have to start doing things differently.

Toby said...

As Steve said, we need a strategy. We need a plan and we need to actually implement it. We have to do something. So far, the only plan is to have more meetings and discuss it and plan on having another meeting.

Our Environment Minister sure wilted. What happened to her? Cat got her tongue?

Dana said...

I live on the side of a mountain covered with trees.

It's hard not to think of them as kindling just now.

Owen Gray said...

As the planet warms, Dana, that's what they become.

Owen Gray said...

I suspect that, after the Fort Mac Fire, somebody's going to have to start answering a lot of questions, Toby.

The Mound of Sound said...

Everything he writes, Owen, is well known, documented, indisputable. Nobody is going to answer questions about the Fort Mac fire because that leads to inevitable questions on issues that are not for discussion. How can you have a policy of rapid expansion of bitumen extraction and export and a concurrent climate change policy that is more than window dressing? Yet Trudeau tells us with a straight face that the path to a green future for Canada runs straight through the tar pits of Athabasca.

At some point even you Liberals will have to realize that Justin is just another bullshitter only with a prettier, more agreeable face. He's all Margaret and precious little Pierre. He made a point of stressing to Albertans in the campaign that he's no Pierre Trudeau and, damn, but hasn't he proved that again and again?

Notice that no one has mentioned what the Athabasca fires will do to Canada's carbon emissions performance? Those forests, before they dried out or were killed off by insect infestations, were a massive "carbon sink." They sucked carbon out of the atmosphere like crazy and, boy, did our numbers look good. In their current condition they've transformed into a massive "carbon bomb." As they burn they release the products of combustion including an enormous volume of CO2. Don't expect Junior to raise that inconvenient point either.

I can live with Trudeau's failure to keep his promise of producing a climate change policy within 90 days of coming to power. That's a Herculean task. What I do fault him for, however, is doing so much to worsen the problem. Harper was at least honest enough to just come out and say, "screw you." Justin is a sneak and that's worse.

Owen Gray said...

Justin can't have it both ways, Mound. I had hoped he knew that. I'm not so sure he does.