Summer in Northern Hemisphere countries has been marked by deadly wildfires. The Los Angeles Times article dubbed the season a summer of infernos, as catastrophic wildfires have raged in many parts of the world, happening simultaneously with globe-spanning heatwaves and high temperatures.
Canada’s wildfires have scorched over 37 million acres (15 million hectares) of boreal forest; some are still burning. The fires killed at least 17 people and evacuated over 150,000 (Paddison, 2023). Officials call this year’s wildfire season the worst in recorded history regarding the area it has burned.
In Lahaina, the seaside city on western Maui, the fast-spreading wildfires have killed at least 111 people, with at least a thousand still missing. More than 80 wildfires have erupted in Greece since July 2023, killing at least 27 people. High temperatures and protracted heatwaves have contributed to Greece’s wildfires.
A United Nations report released last year warned that wildfires are expected to rise by 50% by 2100, and governments are unprepared to address this. The report says that even the Arctic, previously all but immune, faces rising wildfire risk.
“Climate change and land-use change are projected to make wildfires more frequent and intense, with a global increase of extreme fires of up to 14% by 2030, 30% by the end of 2050 and 50% by the end of the century, according to a new report by the UN Environment Programme”.
According to the report, wildfires and climate change are mutually exacerbating.
“Wildfires are made worse by climate change through increased drought, high air temperatures, low relative humidity, lightning, and strong winds resulting in hotter, drier, and longer fire seasons. At the same time, wildfires make climate change worse, mostly by ravaging sensitive and carbon-rich ecosystems like peatlands and rainforests. This turns landscapes into tinderboxes, making it harder to halt rising temperatures.”
The report urges Governments to radically shift their investments from wildfire reaction and response to prevention and preparedness.
A new study by scientists from the World Weather Attribution, published on 22 August 2023, finds that climate change made eastern Canada’s devastating fires twice as likely. The Quebec fire between May and July sent clouds of toxic smoke into the United States.
The World Weather Attribution group’s analysis, a body that examines the role of climate change in extreme weather events, found that Canada’s warming temperatures, low humidity combined with continuous south easterly winds fuelled the massive spread of fire in Alberta, British Columbia, central Saskatchewan, and southwestern portions of the Northwest Territories.
The authors termed this wildfire condition – one that is “fuelled by intense, spatially extensive and persistent fire-conducive weather conditions, as “fire weather”. They noted that they have observed this fire weather since the start of May across the country, making the wildfires at least 20% more intense. As temperatures rise, reaching the 2°C threshold, authors predict more intense wildfires.
WWA scientists reviewed weather data, including temperature, wind speed, humidity, and precipitation, to understand climate change’s role in the fires. Computer models allow them to assess how climate change had altered fire weather this year compared to preindustrial climate.
Climate models allow them not only to project future climate change impacts but also to investigate past weather. Using the existing weather conditions, researchers could model the past weather before the planet warmed due to GHG emissions.
They find that climate change has increased the odds of more extreme wildfires in at least two ways: rising temperatures and shifting rainfall patterns leading to extreme rain and drought. Canada has experienced both conditions – high temperatures and dry conditions this year. Their analysis found that between May and June was the country’s hottest and driest on record since 1940.
The threats of wildfires and their projected increases in the future make adaptation crucial. The study presents these important climate adaptation questions that will have implications for fire management strategies, early warning systems, and the provision of resources. These include:
- How will increasing wildfire risk affect vulnerable and exposed communities and people, and what coping capacity is needed?
- How should fire management and prevention approaches be adapted to address changing risks?
- How should cities manage to exacerbate air quality risks? What air quality protection measures are feasible, and what co-benefits might they have?
- How should limited resources be distributed across early warning, response, and longer-term adaptation?
- What are the hard and soft limits of adapting to wildfires in Canada and worldwide? And far more.
The study notes, “In the coming weeks and months after the wildfires, after-action reviews and adaptation conversations will be critical.”
The published study is still waiting to be peer-reviewed; the process can take years. However, the WWA goal is to “answer the question of the role of climate change in the immediate aftermath of an extreme weather event,” said Friederike Otto, a senior lecturer in Climate Science at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and co-leader of the initiative (Pierre-Louis, 2023).
Read more by clicking on the links in the “Sources” section below.
Lessons from the blaze that levelled Lahaina. (2023, August 17). The Economist. Retrieved from https://www.economist.com/united-states/2023/08/17/lessons-from-the-blaze-that-levelled-lahaina
Smith, H. (2023 20 August). Global firestorm: A summer of infernos in Canada, Greece, Hawaii and beyond point to the future. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2023-08-20/experts-say-hawaii-fire-could-happen-almost-anywhere
Paddison, L. (2023, 22 August). Weather that drove eastern Canada’s devastating wildfires made twice as likely by climate change. CNN. Retrieved from https://edition.cnn.com/2023/08/22/americas/canada-wildfires-climate-change-quebec/index.html
Number of Wildfires to Rise by 50% by 2100 adn Governments Are Not Prepared, Experts Warn. (2022 February 23). United Nations Climate Change. Retrieved from https://unfccc.int/news/number-of-wildfires-to-rise-by-50-by-2100-and-governments-are-not-prepared-experts-warn
Climate change more than doubled the likelihood of extreme fire weather conditions in Eastern Canada. (2023, 22 August). World Weather Attribution. Retrieved from https://www.worldweatherattribution.org/climate-change-more-than-doubled-the-likelihood-of-extreme-fire-weather-conditions-in-eastern-canada/
Barnes, C., Boulanger, Y., Keeping, T., Gachon, P., Gillet, N., Boucher, J., Roberge, F., Kew, S., Haas, O., Heinrich, D., Vahlberg, M., Singh, R., Elbe, M., Sivanu, S., Arrighi, J., Van Aalst, M., Otto, F., Zachariah, M., Krikken, F., Wang, X., Erni, S., Pietropalo, E., Avis, A., Bisaillon, A., & Kimutai, J. (2023, August 21). Climate change more than doubled the likelihood of extreme fire weather conditions in Eastern Canada. Grantham Institute for Climate Change. Retrieved from https://spiral.imperial.ac.uk/handle/10044/1/105981
Pierre-Louis, K. (2023, 23 August). Climate Change Doubled Odds of Eastern Canada’s Extreme Wildfire Weather. BNN Bloomberg. Retrieved from https://www.bnnbloomberg.ca/climate-change-doubled-odds-of-eastern-canada-s-extreme-wildfire-weather-1.1962277