Editor’s Note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion who focuses on climate change and social justice. Follow him on Snapchat, Facebook and email. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
The fire raging in Fort McMurray, Canada sounds like something from the apocalypse.
“It was like driving through hell,” Michel Chamberland told CNN of his escape from the area. “Those flames, they were bright, they were big … It’s unreal. It’s almost like a dream or something.”
The fire, which has burned at least 325 square miles, forcing the evacuation of some 88,000 people, is so hot and so intense that’s it’s formed its own weather. The thundercloud produced by the blaze actually is creating its own lightning, and consequently spreading the fire’s rage, setting more trees alight.
True, there have been fires in Canada’s boreal forest for ages. But scientists and researchers say this fire looks a whole lot like climate change. And that should be alarming for all of us.
“This is an example of what we expect – and consistent with what we expect for climate change,” said Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at the University of Alberta who’s been studying climate change and wildfire for decades. “This fire is unprecedented,” he said, referring to its local impact.
It’s impossible for scientists to say global warming caused this specific fire, of course, but polluting the atmosphere is creating conditions that make such disasters more likely, bigger and costlier.
“In Canada, our area burned (by wildfire) has more than doubled since thLe early 70s,” Flannigan said. “And we’ve published work that states that this is because of human-caused climate change.
“We also find – and other researchers in the United States find – that as the temperature increases we see more fire.”
Hot, dry conditions helped created the perfect conditions for the fire near Fort McMurray. The remote town, which is the gateway to Canada’s oil sands region, a hotbed of fossil fuel extraction, saw a high temperature of 91 Fahrenheit on Tuesday. The previous record of 82 degrees was set in 1945, according to government climate data.
Rachel Cleetus, lead economist and climate policy manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said climate change is “a significant contributing risk factor” in the Canada wildfires. There are other risk factors, like El Nino and our development patterns. But we can clearly see the climate risk factor because of where [the fire is] playing out geographically.
“We know the northern latitudes are warming faster than anywhere else.”
“You definitely see the fingerprints of climate change,” she said.
A ridge in the jet stream, associated with rapid warming in the Arctic, also has helped lock in a high pressure zone over northwest Canada. That likely contributed to the fire conditions, experts said.
Fires only are expected to get bigger and costlier as humans keep pumping heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, primarily by burning fossil fuels for heat, electricity and transportation. A 2011 report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, for example, says certain parts of the American West could see up to a 650% increase in the median area burned by wildfires each year if temperatures rise another 1 degree Celsius. Humans already have warmed the climate about 1 degree Celsius compared with temperatures before the industrial revolution.
To avoid 2 degrees of warming, which world leaders say is the danger zone for climate change, society basically needs to ditch fossil fuels between 2050 and 2100 – a monumental task but one researchers say is achievable.
Meanwhile, wildfire seasons already are getting longer. In Alberta, the province where Fort McMurray is located, the fire season now officially starts in April, Flannigan said. It used to start in May. “In recent years we’ve actually had forest fires in December, which doesn’t have any historical analog,” he told me.
In parts of the western United States, there no longer is a “fire season.” The entire year is now fair game.
“Climate change has led to fire seasons that are now on average 78 days longer than in 1970,” the U.S. Forest Service said in an August 2015 report. “The U.S. burns twice as many acres as three decades ago and Forest Service scientists believe the acreage burned may double again by mid-century.”
Lightning – which starts many fires – also increases with higher atmospheric temperatures.
These consequences are serious and they are increasingly expensive.
We need to grasp where we come into the picture on fires like the one in Canada and plan accordingly. That means better fire management – including discouraging the growth of towns in fire-prone areas and creating emergency funds to help cash-strapped agencies fight these bigger, badder fires.
It also, crucially, means working to eliminate fossil fuel use as quickly as possible. Climate activists around the world this week are trying to temporarily shut down several coal mines and fossil fuel export terminals. The message of this “Break Free” movement is apt and well-timed: Burning any fossil fuels is dangerous – these resources must be left in the ground. Our governments should listen. They should adopt carbon taxes as well as invest in public transit and clean energy.
Doing so won’t prevent all wildfires, of course. Nature always has had a cruel streak.
But by cleaning up pollution we can make fires like the one in Canada less likely.
“Sometimes it takes a few bloody noses for human behavior to change,” said Flannigan, the professor at the University of Alberta. “I was hoping maybe Hurricane Sandy would be a springboard for change. In part, this fire may be a springboard for change – at least for Canadians.
“As a global citizen who has any concern for their children or their grandchildren we need to take action,” he said. “We can’t continue on this business as usual [path] without severe repercussions.”
Ones that look a lot like the hellish fire in Canada.