This week, wildfire smoke from fires in Canada drifted south along the eastern seaboard of the United States, affecting New York City and Washington, D.C., and correspondingly capturing a lot of media attention.
The wildfire in Canada was intentionally started🚨🚨🚨 pic.twitter.com/cydJV3W1as
— The NPC Show (@TheNPCShow) June 10, 2023
The images at the beginning of the video clip above are satellite images from the College of DuPage Meteorology Department on 2 June 2023 which show that the fires that erupted in Quebec, Canada, all started at the same time. Watch the satellite footage here HERE.
Aside from the questions being raised about several fires starting at the same time, as Roger Pielke says, the event should offer a teachable moment on the complexities of climate and the challenges of adapting to a volatile world.
Below, he discusses some of the aspects of wildfires that he sees as missing in the public discussion: what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (“IPCC”) really says, trend data and the complexities of adaptation He makes the following points:
The IPCC has not detected or attributed fire occurrence or area burned to human-caused climate change.
Emissions from wildfires have decreased globally over recent decades, as well as in many regions.
Canada wildfire trends show no increase in recent decades.
Wildfires used to be much more extensive in past centuries.
Wildfires are a part of the natural ecosystem.
What the media won’t tell you about … Wildfires
Wildfire, common to many healthy ecosystems, is a particularly challenging problem for society because of its impacts on property and health. It is also challenging because people like to locate themselves in fire-prone places and do things that ignite fires. We have learned through hard experience that complete suppression of wildfire is not the best policy as it can actually lead to even greater and more harmful wildfire events. These dynamics together make wildfire a challenging issue for policy.
This week, wildfire smoke from fires in Canada has drifted south along the eastern seaboard of the United States, affecting New York City and Washington, D.C., and correspondingly capturing a lot of media attention. The event should offer a teachable moment on the complexities of climate and the challenges of adapting to a volatile world.
With this post, I discuss some of the aspects of wildfires that I see as missing in the public discussion. I start with what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says about wildfire, discuss readily available data on wildfire trends and conclude with the complexities of policy in the face of interconnected human-environment dynamics.
The IPCC has not detected or attributed fire occurrence or area burned to human-caused climate change
The IPCC is of course not infallible, but it is essential and always a good first place to start when discussing what is known about extreme events and their impacts. Many people are surprised when they learn that the IPCC does not evaluate trends in or causes of wildfires.
Instead, the IPCC focuses on “fire weather” which it defines as (emphasis in original):
Weather conditions conducive to triggering and sustaining wildfires, usually based on a set of indicators and combinations of indicators including temperature, soil moisture, humidity and wind. Fire weather does not include the presence or absence of fuel load. Note: distinct from wildfire occurrence and area burned.
For a wildfire to occur requires more than just “fire weather” – it also requires fuel and a source of ignition. In fact, according to the IPCC, the weather is not the most important factor in fire: “Human activities have become the dominant driver.” Indeed, most wildfires are started by human activity.
The IPCC expresses “medium confidence” (about 50-50) that in some regions there are positive trends in conditions of “fire weather”:
There is medium confidence that weather conditions that promote wildfires (fire weather) have become more probable in southern Europe, northern Eurasia, the USA, and Australia over the last century.