Was New York’s summer of smoke from Canadian forest fires really caused by climate change?
With the wildland fire season winding down in Canada, this might be a good time to look back at what happened and at how some people tried to explain why a staggering 17.9 million hectares burned. That’s more than six times the 10-year average.
It’s not all loss, however. We need to keep in mind that fire is part of the natural renewal process of forests. Some pine cones, for example, will not release their seeds until they are subjected to very high temperatures that forest fires produce. But first, some historical context may help.
Just below is an image that summarizes 36 years of forest fires in Canada. Obviously, a lot has burned in the past decades, but a lot has regenerated too. “It is probable that forest fires have occurred ever since there were forests,” according to a 1912 report on American forest fires.
The location of recent fires can be viewed using the M3 Hotspots maps. Click quickly on “next day” to create your own animation. The burn areas of 2022 and previous years vary considerably and can be seen here.
Extensive smoke blanketing major cities such as New York and Toronto that produced record low air quality left the impression that something extraordinary was taking place. But smoke from Canadian and US wildfires has done that before several times.
Boreal forests need fire for regeneration. Wildfires become a problem when they threaten towns, valuable timber, important infrastructure, etc. (Ontario’s Wildland Fire Management Strategy can be viewed here.)
The main differences between 2023 and previous years are (1) the 2023 wildland fire season started earlier, and (2) there were fires all over the country at the same time. However, that didn’t stop some reporters and commentators from making odd or plainly incorrect claims.
Satellite video that was shared on the internet of simultaneous fires starting in Quebec on June 2 fueled speculation of an orchestrated attack. But reports of intense storms with lightning that had rolled through the area the preceding day quickly poured cold water on that theory. One commentator connected the apocalypse to the fires, and others were 100 percent convinced that everything boiled down to “climate change,” which generally means increasing CO2, the usual suspect in any environmental disaster.
In the interview shown here, it is suggested that rising CO2 (1) has led to forest fires that have released energy that is “borderline nuclear”, and (2) a fire tornado “is possible now” in Alberta “once you’ve introduced this new reality.”
According to Dr William Happer (Professor Emeritus, Dept of Physics, Princeton University), roughly 400 acres would have to be burned to release as much energy as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. But the energy of the Hiroshima bomb was released in a few microseconds, while a forest fire takes many hours to burn 400 acres of forest. So the peak power of the Hiroshima bomb (energy release per second) was billions of times larger than that of a forest fire. The temperature in the bomb explosion was about 300,000 ℃. In the center of a wood fire the temperature seldom exceeds 1,200℃.
In that same interview, much is made of a damaged iron skillet, which was presumably in a home and ejected a great distance by some explosion. Given that (1) crown fires can reach 1,200 ℃, (2) temperature inside a burning home can exceed 1,000 ℃, and (3) the melting point of cast iron is around 1,200 ℃, is it really that surprising to find such a damaged skillet?
According to an article in Canadian Geographic: “Northern Canada has warmed about four times faster than the planetary average. So now, when we have these El Niño events, because we have a warmer climate, it plays out in the kinds of things we’re seeing this summer.”
However, Dr. John R. Christy (Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science and Director of the Earth System Science Center at The University of Alabama in Huntsville and Alabama's State Climatologist) stated in an e-mail:
Since Dec 1978 it looks like N. Canada is warming at about the same rate as the rest of the planet, +0.14 C/decade (maybe a little more if you favor the NE part of Canada). Southern and Western Canada are warming less than the global average.
The same Canadian Geographic report recognized El Nino as a factor but assigned greater blame to “climate change.” Dr Christy and Dr Spencer have studied Earth’s temperature for over four decades and have won awards for their work. They see things differently. Their Sept 2023 Global Temperature Report states:
“These very warm global atmospheric temperatures are expected to continue with the ongoing El Niño event through at least the boreal winter in 2024 since the tropical Pacific seawater temperatures are still warmer than average, especially for this time of year, though the tropical water temperatures appeared to have leveled off in the past two months.”
The timeline below illustrates recent El Niño episodes:
The image below illustrates how El Niño has increased the temperature of the Pacific this year.
The same writer who thought the fires were apocalyptic stated: “Research shows every degree rise in global average air temperatures results in 12 percent more lightning strikes…” This is relevant because about half of wildland fires are caused by lighting strikes.
I found two sources for this claim, Scientific American and Science. The Science abstract makes it very clear that this prediction comes from climate models, which have shown themselves to be unreliable in predicting temperature by a wide margin (see pp 18-19 here).
Environment and Climate Change Canada has published annual cloud-to-ground lightning for 1999 to 2018. I graphed the data and learned that it had a slightly downward trendline. In other words, the observational data contradicts the claims made by Scientific American and Science about lightning.
It seems reasonable to expect increasing global temperature to lead to more drought (a common theme) and to an increasing risk of wildland fires. However, there have been many droughts long before CO2 concentration began rising after 1850 (see page 13 and 14 here ).
Nevertheless, it’s surprising that the total hectares burned globally has decreased steadily as CO2 concentration increased. Some research indicates that rising CO2 makes soil moister, possibly decreasing the risk of drought and wildfires. In this case, the observational data supports the research, unlike the claim made about lightning strikes and temperature discussed above. That would mean that a higher CO2 concentration would be desirable as it would lower the risk of wildfires. Therefore, decarbonization, also known as “net zero,” would increase the risk of wildland fires. This is exactly opposite to the prevailing narrative repeated non-stop by the mainstream media.
There was a sense of desperation in some reports, because Canada’s wildfires added a lot of carbon to the atmosphere, 290 megatons of carbon as of August 3. The assumption being made by these commentators is that this additional CO2 will lead to more warming, which will lead to more arid land setting up a vicious cycle, which is the same idea behind a “tipping point.” For example, this CBC frontburner podcast had this exchange:
ALEX PANETTA: Okay, so I want to start right there and ask how are the fires we see today so different from the ones of the past?
JOHN [VAILLANT]: Well, we've increased the amount of industrial CO2 in our atmosphere by 50% over pre-industrial levels. And when you increase anything by 50%, you're going to see some dramatic changes. And so what we're seeing in our atmosphere is the enhanced heat retention capability. So it's warmer and everybody in western Canada is really feeling that right now under this heat dome. And when you have warmer air, it absorbs water better, you have more evaporation. So May is already naturally a dry fire prone time of year for the Canadian West. And now it's being enhanced, really supercharged, if you will, by this added CO2 and this and the added heat that comes with it.
That is partially true, but CO2 is a mild greenhouse gas. The lower troposphere has been warming at 0.096 ℃ / decade due to the greenhouse effect since 1979 (see here and here). That means that in the past 40 years, the lower troposphere warmed up 0.38 ℃. Does it seem reasonable that 0.38 ℃ can “supercharge” the risk of wildland fires? Furthermore, the warming effect of each molecule of CO2 decreases significantly (logarithmically) as its concentration increases, and CO2 is currently “saturated.” This is well illustrated by CO2 Coalition diagram titled Fact #2 (see here). And what exactly is “industrial CO2”? Is that different from regular CO2? Of course not.
There might be a misconception at play. Some people see a graph of CO2 concentration and might assume that temperature is following a similar path (e.g., see paras 11 and 12 here), but that is not the case as explained above. And yes, CO2 concentration has accelerated in the past 50 years, but only from about 1 to 2.5 parts per million per year in an erratic but nearly linear way (see here). Once again, however, CO2 is already “saturated,” so this acceleration has little impact if any on temperature. (If you would like to understand the physics of this, please consult “Dependence of Earth’s Thermal Radiation on Five Most Abundant Greenhouse Gases.”)
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In what is likely one of the few and perhaps only Western government publications to question the “climate change” narrative, Statistics Norway published a paper recently that concluded:
Using theoretical arguments and statistical tests we find...that the effect of man-made CO2 emissions does not appear to be strong enough to cause systematic changes in the temperature fluctuations during the last 200 years.
It’s hard to find some topic or issue that hasn’t been linked to climate change. For example, do an internet search for “obesity +’climate change’” or “AIDS + ‘climate change’”, and you will get many hits. That’s the level of absurdity we’ve reached.
By now, I hope the reader has acquired a healthy scepticism of glib claims about “climate change”, which is effectively a synonym for rising CO2 concentration. If you would like to learn the facts about CO2, I recommend reviewing “Climate Quiz” and “CO2 Facts” found at the CO2 Coalition website.
Canada has about 8,000 wildfires per year. Natural Resources Canada estimates that about half of wildfires are caused by humans, but a study of US wildfires estimates 84 percent. That’s reasonable given that the US population is about 10 times that of Canada’s. That study stated: “Human-started wildfires were caused by a variety of sources, including the US Forest Service-designated categories of equipment use, smoking, campfire, railroad, arson, debris burning, children, fireworks, power line, structure, and miscellaneous fires.” How much did any of these sources e.g., arson, contribute to Canada’s wildfires? What this means is that Canada could avoid up to about 4,000 wildfires per year by reducing human-caused fires through better education, training, and enforcement. Even if only a fraction of that was achieved, that would significantly reduce the damage and expense resulting from these fires.
When faced with a poorly understood situation that is frightening, overwhelming, or threatening, sometimes people seek reassurance with a quick and easy explanation. In this situation, “climate change” appears to be that explanation. However, rising CO2 is not the main cause of this extraordinary summer of fires.
We can’t do much about ocean currents, lightning strikes or natural climate variations that have been going on for millions of years, but we can try to reduce the human contribution to wildland fires. That’s how journalists, scientists and government officials could help reduce the risk of this extraordinary summer of fires from happening again.
Fabiano Micoli has a B.Eng. (mechanical), MBA, and B.Ed. (math and physics). He writes from Toronto.
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