Canadian Wildfires: not driven by climate change

Mainstream media mavens in New York City, Washington, D.C., and other major cities on the U.S. East Coast blanketed by smoke from Canada’s wildfires went into overdrive saying the event was unprecedented and provided further proof that catastrophic climate change is occurring.

Whether they were ignorant of the facts and believed what they said or are so far in the bag on climate alarmism they couldn’t let the facts get in the way of another story hyping the purported climate crisis, they were wrong or lying on every count.

Wildfires happen every year throughout the United States and Canada -- which is why both countries have designated “wildfire seasons” -- and across the globe, but hardly ever get the sustained, nearly apoplectic coverage Canada’s fires got last week. I guess that’s because many major broadcast and print media outlets are on the East Coast and seeing the smoke first-hand, which others experience every year or two, brought the impact of fires home to the horrified journalists.

But experiencing the impacts of fires first-hand doesn’t prove this year’s fires are unusual or caused by climate change, and the evidence shows that they aren’t.

History tells us that smoke from wildfires in Canada have periodically darkened or yellowed the skies on the U.S. East Coast, as they did last week. Indeed, long before anyone used fossil fuels to generate electricity or for transportation the New England Historical Society (NEHS) reports smoke from Canadian wildfires created “yellow” or “dark” days multiple times in the past, in particular: on May 12, 1706; October 21, 1716; August ,9 1732; May 19, 1780; July 3, 1814; November, 6-10, 1819; July 8, 1836; September. 2, 1894; and September 24-30, 1950. So contrary to media reports, last week’s smoke was hardly unprecedented.

Canada’s May 1780 wildfires, delivered so much smoke to the Eastern United States that May 19, 1780 became known as “New England's Dark Day.” Reports from the time explain the smoke was so bad that candles had to be lit at midday to see.

As was true in the past when smoke from Canadian wildfires was blown into the United States the cause is temporary weather conditions, not climate change. Gunnar Schade, D.Sc., an associate professor with Texas A&M University’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences, says that after hitting the air stream the smoke from Canada’s wildfires was delivered by a “North Central Canadian (Arctic) high-pressure system and a persistent, slow-moving, low-pressure system off the northeast coast [which] combined [to] cause large-scale southerly to southeasterly air movement, which has taken the smoke to the U.S. upper Midwest, southeast and east coast.” When those conditions abated, the smoke dissipated as well.

Not only were this year’s fires not unique, they also did not, as the media stories consistently implied, represent a trend in Canadian wildfires that could be attributed to climate change. One can’t attribute this year's wildfires to climate change because the evidence shows wildfires in Canada and globally have been declining during the recent period of modest warming. 

Data from Canada’s National Forestry Database for both the entire country as well as the province of Quebec, where many of the recent wildfires occurred, show declining trends for both the number of fires and area burned over the past 31 years. Interestingly, a study by scientists with the Canadian Forest Service attributed the decline in forest fires in Canada over the past few decades to the combined effect of carbon-dioxide fertilization and modestly rising temperatures, which resulted in improved soil moisture conditions. Because plants lose less water via the process of transpiration under conditions of high CO2 and higher temperatures, less moisture is drawn from soil.

To translate, the Canadian Forest Service surmises that climate change, rather than causing more and more severe wildfires, is responsible for the declining trend.

Globally, NASA satellites have also recorded a significant decline in the number of wildfires. In the report “Researchers Detect a Global Drop in Fires,” NASA found, “Globally, the total acreage burned by fires declined 24 percent between 1998 and 2015, according to a new paper published in Science.”

Nor, in its most recent report, does the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change attribute any shift in “fire weather” to climate change, or acknowledge any increase in the number or intensity of wildfires regionally or globally.

Following the science, therefore, one must conclude that climate change is not to blame for the recent fires in Canada or the smoke they delivered to the East Coast.

The fear and actual damage generated by wildfires each year is bad enough without the bought and paid for mainstream media making it worse by encouraging the misdirection of resources from taking actions that address the true causes of wildfires, to the battle against climate change. There is no evidence climate change has or will cause more heatwavesdroughts, or resulting wildfires.

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., (hsburnett@heartland.orgis the Director of the Arthur B. Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy at the Heartland Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit research organization based in Arlington Heights, Illinois.

Image: National Archives

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