Fort McMurray, climate change and wildfires

The big question is whether climate change led to the forest fires that are now ravaging Fort McMurray. The irony would run thick, wouldn’t it, if those dirty oilsands people caused all this climate change and then “mother nature” turned around and razed their oilsands city to the ground. Some have called this Climate Karma.

Well, let’s look at some numbers to see if there is a connection between climate change and wildfires in Alberta.

An article at MacLean’s magazine gives a brief overview of the history of wildfires in Alberta over the past decade. The thing I found most interesting was the fact that the general trend was… well… non-existent. For the most part the number of wildfires and the total number of hectares that were ravaged didn’t seem to generally trend either upward or downward a whole lot. If anything there appeared to be a slight downward trend with the occasional freak year. 2011 was a year with a remarkable total area that got burned, but the total number of fires was actually lower that year than any of the other years on record. It would seem one or two of them just really got out of hand.

Here are the charts from MacLean’s.

Well when there isn’t a trend worth speaking of, my first instinct is to get more data. So I cruised over to the Alberta Agriculture and Forestry website. They have an entire section dedicated to wildfire statistics in Alberta. The low hanging fruit (because I don’t want to sort through an entire century of data in various database formats) is all the data from 1996 to the present; roughly double the time span that the MacLean’s article provides us with. I compiled that data and produced the following chart.

 wildfire_history

The orange line represents the total area that was burned in any given year in hectares (number on the left side) and the blue line represents the total number of fires in that year (number on the right side).

I don’t know about you, but the orange line looks pretty random; no real trend upward or downward. Other than a few years with spectacular wildfire damage (1998, 2002, 2011, 2012) most years go up a bit, and down a bit, but there doesn’t seem to be a general trend in any particular direction. In terms of total lost hectares from wildfires it seems to be kind of hit-and-miss as to whether you’ll get a roughly average year or a crazy year like 2011.

On the other hand, the blue line – total number of fires – does appear to show a bit of a trend now that more data is included in the chart. From 1996 through to about 2006 it appears to generally trend somewhat upward. For that decade it seemed the number of wildfires was steadily increasing year-over-year. Then something happened around 2006; from that year on it seems to slowly decrease. We generally seem to have fewer wildfires per year in recent years since the peak in 2006.

So how does this relate to climate change? Well, the claim is often made that, “droughts and forest fires [are examples of] extreme weather events that are made more likely by climate change.”

And, of course, the climate is changing because we are burning oil.

And, of course, Fort McMurray makes a lot of oil.

The irony is thicker than the oil drawn out of the oilsands for which Fort McMurray is famous. Right?

But we must ask if there truly is such a connection between climate change and extreme weather. If extreme weather is an indicator of climate change then the indications from the history of wildfires in Alberta is that either there isn’t really a whole lot of climate change going on (orange line) or the climate was getting worse, but seems to now be getting better (blue line). Either way, there isn’t really much cause for alarm, is there? If there isn’t a lot of change, all is good. If things are getting better now, all is good.

But those who are alarmed by climate change couldn’t possibly accept that. Some people are dead set in their belief that climate change is actually happening, and it is continuing to this day. If so, then extreme weather does not appear to be paralleling that change; at least not wildfires in Alberta (the current topic of interest). If the climate is getting worse, but the extreme weather is getting better, then the two are not related as we have been told.

Naturally there are plenty of different measuring sticks people use to look into this matter, but this particular measuring stick – wildfires in Alberta – either shows that climate change is “getting better,” or that extreme weather is not, in fact, linked to climate change. Either way, “Fort McMurray is burning because of climate change” doesn’t seem to fit the data, so pointing fingers at Fort McMurray hardly seems justified.

Perhaps instead of pointing fingers we might consider extending an open hand to the many families who have lost everything in the fires. Instead of blame, let’s send them aid.

Just a thought.

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