Did climate change cause this summer’s spate of forest fires?

Forest fire smoke in Kootenay National Park, Canada. Photo by James Gabbert

Updated August 8, 2018

The increase of wildfires the nation has seen in the past few years has been raising a lot of eyebrows and questions about whether climate change is having an impact.

Yan Boulanger, research scientist in forest ecology at the Laurentian Forest Centre, says that the two go hand in hand.

“Climate change is affecting the amount of forest fires we’re seeing in Canada,” Belanger says. “There has been a positive correlation between increasing temperatures and the amount of fire activity and burn area we see each decade.”

To many scientists, there is little doubt that the temperatures are increasing around the globe over time. These increases in temperatures are putting our forests at a higher risk for more frequent fires and larger burn areas.

“Pretty much all boreal forests in Canada will come under threat at some point, not just specific provinces or regions,” Belanger says.

There has been an increase in the amount of precipitation we are seeing, but that is being out-raced by the increase in temperature.

“Our models are predicting that Canada will see an average increase in temperature of six to eight degrees by the end of the century. Some places have already experienced an increase of one or two degrees,” Belanger says.

But there is a great deal of variability each year. These increasing temperatures are not absolute predictors of weather patterns and just because there are a lot of fires one year does not mean the next year will be worse. One of the worst years for fire activity in Canada was in the 1980s. These models and predictions speak to long term trends.

Moving forward and searching for solutions, the current federal government of Canada has been making efforts to aid our nation’s impact on the environment.

“Two of the key policies,” according to Gideon Forman, climate change analyst for the David Sazuki Foundation, “is the phasing out of burning coal for electricity and carbon pricing.”

On the federal level, these policies are still in the stages of being worked out and implemented, but Forman says Ontario has been one of the better examples of demonstrating the impact of phasing out coal.

By 2014, the Ontario government phased out coal burning for electricity completely. Since this has taken full effect, carbon dioxide production in the province has been reduced the equivalent of taking six million cars off the road. It had a demonstrable impact on air quality in the province.

“The number of smog days in Ontario used to be around 50 a year in 2005. Now we have close to none,” Forman says. “But it is important to remember that there are plenty of other factors involved in improving air quality beyond the reduction of coal burning.”

Even with efforts to change federal policy and the move towards a greener future, Canadians will have to get used to hotter climates and increased forest fires.

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