The story dominating climate news the past couple of weeks has been the record-breaking Canadian wildfires. The fires started in British Columbia and Alberta in late April, then spread extensively in May and June. The culprit? An unusually hot, dry spring combined with lightning in some areas and human error in others. Half of wildfires are ignited by lightning, with the rest caused by human activities ranging from discarded cigarette butts and unattended campfires to equipment malfunctions. But these events only spark the fires; their severity is largely due to climate change. Canada experienced a warmer and drier spring than usual, creating conditions ripe for fires to spread more rapidly and extensively.
But there’s an underlying story beyond the immediate damage caused by the wildfires. The East Coast of the U.S. experienced detrimental effects on air quality due to the fires. Prevailing winds carried the smoke from the fires, resulting in a noticeable deterioration of air quality in places like New York City and Washington D.C. Because the fires affected such populated cities in areas not used to these conditions, they prompted conversations around the personal impact of climate change. But as the particulate matter—and proverbial dust—settles, will the fires have any noticeable effect in shifting public sentiment when it comes to the climate crisis?
Let’s not downplay the immediate victims, though. Thousands of Canadians have been displaced, and there’s massive damage to infrastructure by what is, in all likelihood, the worst fire season on record for the country.
Some striking statistics:
– More than 400 blazes were burning across Canada as of last Wednesday
– This year’s fire season has started earlier than usual—and it’s more aggressive, with this year’s fires already surpassing 4 million hectares in the first month
– The United Nations predicts wildfires globally will increase in intensity by 57% by 2090, signaling a perilous new norm
Scientists correlate intensifying fire seasons with the climate crisis—studies show anthropogenic climate change has significantly increased the area of wildfires—which means global action is imperative.
1. BBC, “Canada wildfires: Will they change how people think about climate change?,” https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20230608-canada-wildfires-will-they-change-climate-attitudes-on-us-east-coast Accessed June 15, 2023
2. The Guardian, “Canada’s wildfires are part of our new climate reality, experts and officials say,” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/jun/07/canadas-wildfires-new-climate-reality-experts-officials-say Accessed June 15, 2023
3. PNAS, “Anthropogenic climate change impacts exacerbate summer forest fires in California,” https://www.pnas.org/doi/full/10.1073/pnas.2213815120 Accessed June 15, 2023