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1) The losses caused by the fires in Alberta, most notably around Fort McMurray, are horrendous, and the residents who have suddenly found themselves homeless and/or displaced have my sincerest sympathies. I am in no way attempting to downplay the severity of the fires or somehow suggest that these tragedies are the justified results of humanity’s actions.
2) I am not a climate change denier. If this comes across as me doubting the reality and potential eventual ramifications of climate change, you’re reading this post wrong. Go over it again and see if it makes a little more sense the second time through.
3) I am approaching my fourth year in my environmental biology degree, so while I am by no means an expert, I do have some amount of insight into this sort of thing.
Alright, now that that’s out of the way I’ll get to the point. I have been seeing several articles finding their way across the internet claiming that the fires currently raging across Canada (most notably the fire near Fort McMurray, Alberta) are caused, directly or indirectly, by climate change. This is not true. While climate change is indeed strongly supported by scientific evidence and is certainly something to be concerned about, it is not a factor (or if so, to a minimal extent) in these fires. The aforementioned articles cite recent spikes of record-breaking temperature as evidence that global warming has led to the rash of fires however, this opinion fails to take into account the difference between “weather” and “climate.” While weather is measured over short periods of time, climate is measured over many years allowing us to more fully understand the long term trends in temperature and weather. A spike in temperature which results in an extra warm dry year is considered a variation, not the rule. A few dry years means little when considered against longterm trends. Throughout history, there have been many periods of dry years, followed by cool wet years, followed again by more hot years. Much of Saskatchewan was once the bottom of a sea (which dried up) so a hot spring/summer with little rain cannot simply be attributed to climate change.
Now again, don’t get me wrong. I fully believe that long term trends have shown a steady rise in temperature, however not to the extent people seem to think. Global warming is not about to heat the Earth to unlivable temperatures and cause everything to spontaneously combust—it is expected to raise the average global temperature by a few degrees. While this may seem insignificant, it is in reality a major problem. For example, water expands with heat, and the oceans are almost entirely comprised of water (surprise!). So even a change of a few degrees, when considered against the immense amount of sea water, will wipe out massive chunks of inhabited land. The melting of glaciers, and many other concerns also have immense ramifications. These fires however, are not among them.
Any claims that these fires are the result of climate change are either based on ignorance, or fear mongering. That said, these fires are absolutely attributable to human activity. Forests are meant to burn. They have been designed to thrive despite, and because of, disturbances such as fires. Fire eliminates dry debris, allowing new growth to gain a foothold in the forest. It removes large light-blocking trees allowing young trees and different species to receive the light they need to grow. Many species cannot survive without fire. And that’s where humans come in. We have moved into forest territories in search of resources or homes and, for our own protection, have disrupted the natural fire patterns that keep the forest in check. The debris that is normally wiped out every so many years has been allowed to accumulate, adding fuel to the blazes which eventually escape our control. Trees continue to die and rather than being removed by spot-fires, simply dry into tinder.
That is the true reason for the outbreak of these fires. Sure, dry years result in more favourable fire conditions, but it is our continued (attempted) prevention of natural fires that causes blazes like these to erupt into massive wildfires. That’s where the cause of these fires should be attributed. Misplaced blame is nearly as dangerous as denial of responsibility, as it prevents us from averting the same problems in the future. If we continue to consider cases like this to be merely the result of climate change, we miss the real cause of the rash of fires. It is not so much climate change that is causing these fires as it is humanity’s feeble attempts to disrupt a natural occurrence for our own benefit. We can only do so much. We cannot compete with nature, and when we play with fire, we get burned.