By Peter Aronson
As if we need another reason to fight climate change, the smokey haze that filled the Northeastern skies last week put the issue right on our doorstep.
The cause of the smoke was a series of forest fires in Canada. Here we’ll look back on one of the most authoritative–and prescient–scientific studies on forest fires to date. The United Nations Environment Programme Report, titled Spreading Like Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires, states clearly that climate change is one of the primary causes of these natural disasters.
Released in February 2022, the UN report, which was the work of more than 50 global scientists, said the number of forest fires would be increasing in the ensuing years.
“[C]limate change, land-use change, and poor land and forest management” are the primary reasons wildfires have increased, the report states. “The heating of the planet is turning landscapes into tinderboxes, while more extreme weather means stronger, hotter, drier winds to fan the flames.”
Canada experienced its warmest May on record. This, coupled with its vast forests, an ongoing drought, an extremely dry upper soil layer, and extreme weather causing more lightning, and you have a recipe for what Canada is now experiencing.
The UN report explains the connection between climate change and forest fires this way: “Climate change has led to numerous environmental changes that can increase the frequency and magnitude of dangerous fire weather – increased drought, high air temperatures, low relative humidity, dry lightning, and strong winds, resulting in hotter, drier, and longer fire seasons. The increase in the frequency and magnitude of dangerous weather conditions is causing vegetation that would not usually burn (e.g., rainforests, permafrost, and peatland swamps) to dry out and combust.”
As of this week, more than 10 million acres of forests have burned in more than 400 forest fires across Canada, including the Quebec region. It is on pace to be the worst fire season in Canada’s history.
These vast fires contribute to what the UN report calls a dangerous climate change feedback loop: the fires produce “huge quantities of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, spurring even more warming, more drying and more burning.”
“In this way, wildfires may accelerate the positive feedback loop in the carbon cycle, making it more difficult to halt rising temperatures,” the report states.
The report added that it’s possible climate change could cause future forest fires to occur in unexpected places, such as the Arctic, and it predicts that worldwide forest fires will increase up to 14 percent by 2030, 30 percent by 2050 and 50 percent by the end of the century.
“Too often, our response is tardy, costly, and after the fact, with many countries suffering from a chronic lack of investment in planning and prevention,” the UN report states.
So how do we respond? The report calls for radical change in how governments around the world prepare for wildfires, suggesting a more “Fire Ready Formula,” by shifting resources from reaction and response to prevention and preparedness.
Experts predict large forest fires in Canada throughout the summer and the Northeastern part of the U.S. will likely continue to feel its impact.
“These Canadian wildfires are truly unprecedented, and we cannot ignore that climate change continues to make these disasters worse,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer. “Warmer temperatures and severe droughts mean forests burn faster, burn hotter, and burn bigger. And the warming is happening at a faster pace in countries with higher latitudes,” adding, “none of this is coincidence.”
This just gives us one more reason to double down on everything we do to fight climate change.