Saturday, May 07, 2016

El Niño and climate change at the heart of Alberta wildfires

As Canada fixates on the drama and devastation occurring as raging wildfires burn up the one-time boom-town of Fort McMurray in Northern Alberta, few people are linking it to climate change. In the midst of all the turmoil and social and economic disruption, it kind of seems churlish to say I told you so. But, yes, global warming exacerbated by a strong El Niño phenomenon (or El Niño exacerbated by global warming depending on how you see it) is at the heart of this particularly early and particularly brutal forest fire season in Alberta.
The city of Fort McMurray has been decimated, and upwards of 80,000 people have been evacuated from the area over the last few days, in what could turn out to be Canada's most expensive natural disaster ever. Some 25% of the nearby tar sands oil production has been halted as a result of the fires, adding further economic woes to a region already reeling from the low oil price. The fires already cover an area larger than New York City, but the tragedy is far from over and the blaze could double in size over the next day or two, and the fires could continue to burn for weeks. The area has not seen rain for over two months, and no rain is forecast for at least the next week or two, even if the temperatures (which have been in excess of 30°C recently) are set to fall some.
The warm, dry weather the whole of Western Canada and the Prairies has experienced over the last winter (the third warmest and second driest since records began) could lead to a record fire season this year. The confluence of El Niño and climate change is creating a perfect storm of wildfire conditions, with most of Albert and Saskatchewan under "extreme" or "very high" fire risk warnings at the moment, along with Eastern BC and Southern Manitoba, and even parts of Southern Ontario and Quebec are experiencing a "high" risk.
As Globe and Mail correspondent Doug Saunders points out, though, Canada's woes in the face of the combined attack of climate change and El Niño are actually miniscule compared to what else is happening around the world:
  • an extraordinary drought in already drought-prone South Africa, that has effectively wiped out its corn crop;
  • a precipitous fall in Ethiopia's grain crop (up to 75%), leading to an estimated 10 million people in food crisis there;
  • a food emergency declared in Malawi after a crop failure;
  • lost harvests in Zimbabwe, leading to the need for substantial grain imports the country can ill afford;
  • a doubling in grain prices throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa as a result of these and other droughts and resulting crop failures;
  • major droughts in several states in India, leading to emergency food measures;
  • reduced rice inventories of up to a third in Thailand, Vietnam and India, which between them are responsible for about 60% of the world's rice supply;
  • a significant fall in North Korea's rice yield, putting their already hard-pressed population under even greater food stress;
  • an increased gap between China's grain production and consumption of some 9.9 million tonnes;
  • massive droughts and wildfires in Indonesia, from the which the country is struggling to recover;
  • etc, etc.
I doubt the Alberta forest fires will be seen as a wake-up call in a region that relies on oil for much of its economic life, but they really do represent just one more reason why we need to take climate change seriously and act quickly, especially given that climate models predict that climate change may well double the likelihood of "super" El Niño events like we are experiencing at the moment.

Finally, about a week later, a mainstream media commentator has the cojones to make the same point in print - kudos to Gary Mason. As Mr. Mason points out, it is hard, and probably politically incorrect, to talk about climate change in the same sentence as the Fort McMurray fires, given that the whole town's very existence is predicated on oil production. But, yes, the subject needs to be broached and connections made.

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