The day climate change came to haunt tar sands country


The scenes that have been coming from Alberta, Canada, over the past week are truly tragic, and horrifying. Massive wildfires, whipped by high winds, have turned the area around Fort McMurray — heavily populated with energy workers in recent years — into a hellscape of towering flames and smoke. Some 245,000 acres of land have been burned, and firefighters aren’t anywhere close to bringing the blaze under control. Entire neighborhoods, and many businesses, have been devoured by the fire. With the blaze cutting off the only major road into Fort McMurray, authorities have faced the daunting task of evacuation thousands by air. It’s been a miracle that no one has been killed or serious injured in the Alberta wildfires…so far, anyway.

The tragedy in Canada also comes with a dollop of irony. The reason that the Fort McMurray area is so heavily populated these days is because the region is the epicenter for extracting and transporting tar sands oil, a heavy, almost molasses-like type of fuel that is considered something of a disaster for the campaign to reduce greenhouse gas pollution; that’s because it takes more energy to extract this tar sands oil from the ground and because it emits more carbon when it burns. If you’ve been following environmental issues here in the United States, you probably know that the Keystone XL pipeline, which has been killed for now by the Obama administration because of strong public opposition, was intended to bring tar sands oil to refineries and ports through the American heartland.

The large tar sands deposits in northern Alberta aren’t directly linked to the out-of-control wildfires. But there’s a strong indirect connection. The changes in climate that have come about as a result, largely, of burning fossil fuels are a key factor  behind the recent epidemic of wildfires in North America:

No one knows exactly how the fire began—whether it was started by a lightning strike or by a spark provided by a person—but it’s clear why the blaze, once under way, raged out of control so quickly. Alberta experienced an unusually dry and warm winter. Precipitation was low, about half of the norm, and what snow there was melted early. April was exceptionally mild, with temperatures regularly in the seventies; two days ago, the thermometer hit ninety, which is about thirty degrees higher than the region’s normal May maximum. “You hate to use the cliché, but it really was kind of a perfect storm,” Mike Wotton, a research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service, told the CBC.

Though it’s tough to pin any particular disaster on climate change, in the case of Fort McMurray the link is pretty compelling. In Canada, and also in the United States and much of the rest of the world, higher temperatures have been extending the wildfire season. Last year, wildfires consumed ten million acres in the U.S., which was the largest area of any year on record. All of the top five years occurred in the past decade. In some areas, “we now have year-round fire seasons,” Matt Jolly, a research ecologist for the United States Forest Service, recently told the Times.

“You can say it couldn’t get worse,” Jolly added, but based on its own projections, the forest service expects that it will get worse. According to a Forest Service report published last April, “Climate change has led to fire seasons that are now on average 78 days longer than in 1970.” Over the past three decades, the area destroyed each year by forest fires has doubled, and the service’s scientists project that it’s likely to “double again by midcentury.” A group of scientists who analyzed lake cores from Alaska to obtain a record of forest fires over the past ten thousand years found that, in recent decades, blazes were both unusually frequent and unusually severe. “This extreme combination suggests a transition to a unique regime of unprecedented fire activity,” they concluded.

No one wishes for this type of outcome. It’s heartbreaking to see this level of devastation in any community. Still, one hopes that the Fort McMurray wildfires will serve as a wake-call for the world’s policy-makers — that the very real effects of global warming are not decades away, but here right now. And things won’t start to get better until we free ourselves from burning fossil fuels, especially the dirty tar sands fuel of northern Alberta.

Read more about the role of climate change in the Canadian wildfires from the New Yorker:

Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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