The Climate Change Connection
It is hard to understand the connection between climate change and wild fire. This is in part because it is hard to understand the factors that determine the frequency and extent of wild fires to begin with, and partly because of the messiness of the conversation about climate change and fire. I’m going to try to make this simple, I don’t expect to succeed, but maybe we can achieve a somewhat improved understanding.
Fires have to start, then they burn for a while, then they stop.
Most wild fires are probably started by humans. This does not mean that human arsonists are running around the landscape having what they consider to be fun. There is a better way to think about this. Every species is unique, and one of the ways Homo sapiens is unique is in the control and use of fire. This has probably been going on for something close to two million years, which means that in some cases entire ecosystems have probably become more fully fire adapted than they otherwise might have been simply because humans started concentrating energy in a way that causes stuff to burst into flames. However, there are natural fire-adapted ecosystems that certainly emerged in the absence of humans, as humans have only recently come to live in all of the habitable regions of the world. The point is, when we think of fires, and realize that they have to start somehow, it is easy to confuse “natural” and “human-caused” fires, or to see them as distinct. What you need to realize is that while lightning strikes and other natural phenomena can and do start fires, human involvement is probably the most common source.
Humans start fires in a lot of ways. There were a lot of fires in the last half of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century started by the railroads, which used coal in burners and had real sparky wheels. These trains were often serving lumbering regions, where trees were cut and huge piles of slash were left near tracks, which could then accidentally catch fire. Humans have always had camp fires, initially as the only way we cooked our food or kept warm, and more recently for most humans, as a recreational thing. There is a variety of other human activities that involve fire that can get out of control. Finally, humans start fires on purpose, to reduce slash, to limit large fires, or to manage the ecology. This last effect has been going on with our species for tens of thousands of years, but continues in park and wild lands.
As the number of humans in a region goes up, the chances of a fire starting, all else being equal, goes up. But then, the density of humans goes past a tipping point, and two things happen. One is that the value of what might be burned is increased (or recognized) including homes, but also, forests that are used for recreation. The other is that humans are dense enough, and have built enough roads and other facilities (including roads built just for fire suppression activities) that it becomes possible for humans to put out the fires they start, and thus, the number or extent of fires may go down.
Fort McMurray seems to have been caught between a rock and a hard place in this regard. The mountainous and forested regions of Alberta and other western Canadian provinces normally have a lot of fires, and normally they are left (mostly) to burn. They burn out, and the parts of the forest that are burned then go though a natural cycle. For McMurray, however, is a closely compact set of settlements and other human-built facilities that are in a place where suppression is not carried out on a day to day basis, so what might have been a big fire ignored and left to burn is happening in a place where we do not want a fire to burn.
Added to this, when this fire started, the residence of Fort McMurray needed to flee north to get away from the fire. But what is north of Fort McMurray? A dead end. If you go north form Fort McMurray, you eventually run into a cul-de-sac, and that’s it. As of this writing, during the day on Friday, May 6th, authorities are working out how to evacuate those residents that went north back through the fire area, to the south. But I digress..
Fires start, and humans starting fires is, really, just as “natural” in a way as any other way to start a fire. But fire starting is not context free. It is difficult to start a fire with human intent, carelessness, accident, or with lightning, in a wet forest. Stuff doesn’t burn that well, so a fire might start up but then it dies out. If, however, there is plenty of fuel and the fuel is dry, a real fire is more likely to get going. The conditions in Alberta (and over a much larger area, including the northern Tier of the US states at the moment) are ripe for fires to get started right now, and in many areas, have been so for weeks.
Once the fire starts, it burns. The more fuel, the more intense the burn, and the larger area with fuel, the larger the fire may become. Winds push the fire along and spread it. So, dry conditions with a good breeze are optimal to get a fire started and spread.
The conditions in the vicinity of Fort McMurray have been dry all winter. There was reduced snow pack, and the snow pack melted away quickly. there has been very little rain. There has been a lot of wind, which further dries things out. There has been a lot of heat, a warmer atmosphere, which exacerbates the drying. The forested areas of Alberta are ripe for fires starting, and for their spread, and for their intensity.
How does climate change fit in? First, let me disabuse you of a notion that we are seeing mentioned in relation to this fire, and that has been out there in conversations about climate change and weather (and yes, fire is part of weather) for some time now. It is a form of meme, and it goes something like this: You can’t attribute a given weather event to climate change.
This is patently false, not so much because it is not true, but because it begs the question and does so improperly. In other words, it is the answer to a poorly formulated question that assumes things that are not true. I’ll clarify by reformulating the whole idea.
Weather is climate, now, just as climate is weather over the long term. If the climate changes for any reason, the weather changes. In other words, the relationship between climate changing and weather being altered is a natural tautology. All weather events are related to climate because they are climate.
The relevant question, then, is not is there a link between A and A (because they are the same things at different scales) but rather, is the nature of a potential weather event — including it’s likelihood as a statistically defined hazard, or other variables such as how big, how wet, how hot, how dry, or when it happens, etc. — different now than it would have been in the absence of surface warming cause by the human release of greenhouse gas pollution?
When it comes to fire, the answer is, simply yes. But, the reasons for this are complex.
Surface warming has caused … wait for it … warming. The warm air exacerbating the Alberta fires is warm air we can presume is contributed to by an El Niño event (which has been winding down but surface temperature remain elevated after the event itself is over), riding on top of surface temperatures elevated by global warming. There are a lot of ways to get warm air into Alberta in May, but we know that the northern regions have been warming apace with global warming, with winters shorter, snow pack melting out faster, etc. So we can be reasonably confident that the “warming” part of “global warming” can account for … warming, generally, probably here, now, this Spring.
Surface warming has caused atmospheric moisture to become more clumped. This has to do with differential warming in the Arctic vs. the rest of the planet, which has caused the polar jet stream to change its characteristics, so instead of being usually straightish as it runs around the planet, it seems now to be usually slow moving and wavy. This has caused large areas of the landscape to experience prolonged dry conditions, sometimes for months (then it rains) and sometimes for years (like in California, where there is a drought). Meanwhile, other areas experience multiple 100-year or 500-year rainfall events with flooding in a short period of time. The forested regions of Alberta have been dry.
The same effect might also have brought prolonged and energetic winds to Alberta over recent weeks, making it more dry and fanning and spreading fires once they start. I quickly add that I’m not sure if Alberta has been exceptionally windy or, of so, why, but that is something that should be examined.
Finally, climate change has helped the spread of the pine bark beetle in the region. Fort McMurray is within the area of increased pine bark beetle activity, but other areas farther to the west are even worse. These beetles turn normal trees into kindling, providing fuel for any fires that start in the area.
So, yes, the Alberta fires, and other fires in western Canada and in the northern tier of the US are more frequent and larger than they otherwise would have been because the things that cause fires to get started and spread are worse because of climate change.
Schadenfreude and Karma
We have seen a lot of yammering on social networks, Op Eds, and a few other places, engrossed in a sense of schadenfreude and invoking references to Karma. This is because most of the settlement at Fort McMurray happened because of the bituminous sands exploitation in the area, and of course, this has to do with global warming because it is part of the process of exploiting fossil fuels, which causes the release of CO2 pollution, which causes … well, you get the picture. So, if you are mad at the people of Fort McMurray for being part of this, then you might think they are getting what they deserve. And, you might even see this as some sort of Karma.
That would, however, make you something of an asshat.
Privilege examination time. Most of the time, most people don’t get to make most of the decisions that they would ideally make in order to save the world from humanity. If I could, I would drive an electric car charged entirely from solar panels that I would plaster all over my house and property. But, actually, I’m kind of a working class stiff without the resources to do that. So, instead, I just don’t go to conferences any more, and thus burn far less air fuel than I otherwise might. I do that because I can do it, but I can’t do those other things.
The people of Fort McMurray did not decide to cause climate change. They decided to get a job so they could eat and live in a house. Same with the coal minters in West Virginia or the workers in a Koch refinery somewhere. It is only form a position of great and unexamined privilege that one can see the victims of this enormous catastrophe as getting what they deserve.
The Residents of Fort McMurray are Victims
Indeed, these people are victims in many ways. The economic viability of the entire region has been heavily damaged by fuel prices, and to a much lesser extent (than most people think), by pipeline politics. Now they are forced out of their homes by a threatening fire, and in many cases, a very large percentage of cases, will not be able to return to those homes because they are burned down. Indeed, the entire community may be destroyed. You can’t burn down so many homes and have people just go back and rebuild. Their places of work (both bituminous sands exploiting related and other jobs, like as school teachers, grocery store clerks, etc.) are in many cases not going to be there when the fire finally goes out.
The Fort McMurray people were already undergoing a major economic disaster, and now an even greater disaster has befallen them.
The Rhetorical Damage of Insensitivity and Sensitivity
There has been pushback against the schadenfreude and karma tropes. Unfortunately, some of this pushback, including some by Prime Minister Trudeau, has been destructive in another way.
We see people falling into the “we can’t attribute this fire to climate change” trap as a way of reacting to the schadenfreude and karma comments. This is entirely inappropriate. Rather, the role of climate change in causing this type of disaster has to be kept firmly in mind, while at the same time the plight of the people of Fort McMurray has to be fully acknowledged as an epic human disaster, and addressed.
It is not a good idea to throw the importance of climate change under the bus because some people are disrespecting the victims of this catastrophe. That doesn’t do any body any good.
There is a lot written about this fire and related issues, and I’ve put together a few items that you will find intereseting.