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Fires in NW Territories in Line with ‘Unprecedented’ Burn

For the past few weeks, dry and warm weather have fueled large forest fires across Canada’s remote Northwest Territories. The extent of those fires is well above average for the year to-date, and is in line with climate trends of more fires burning in the northern reaches of the globe.

Of the 186 wildfires in the Northwest Territories to-date this year, 156 of them are currently burning. That includes the Birch Creek Fire complex, which stretches over 250,000 acres. 

An aerial view of the Birch Creek Fire complex, which seared 250,000 acres as of Wednesday.
Credit: NWTFire/Facebook

The amount of acres burned in the Northwest Territories is six times greater than the 25-year average to-date according to data from the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center.

Boreal forests like those in the Northwest Territories are burning at rates "unprecedented" in the past 10,000 years according to the authors of a study put out last year. The northern reaches of the globe are warming at twice the rate as areas closer to the equator, and those hotter conditions are contributing to more widespread burns.

The combined boreal forests of Canada, Europe, Russia and Alaska, account for 30 percent of the world’s carbon stored in land, carbon that's taken up to centuries to store. Forest fires like those currently raging in the Northwest Territories, as well as ones in 2012 and 2013 in Russia, can release that stored carbon into the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. Warmer temperatures can in turn create a feedback loop, priming forests for wildfires that release more carbon into the atmosphere and cause more warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's landmark climate report released earlier this year indicates that for every 1.8°F rise in temperatures, wildfire activity is expected to double.

A satellite image of the smoke plume from fires burning in the Northwest Territories captured on July 7, 2014.
Click image to enlarge. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

In addition, soot from forest fires can also darken ice in the Arctic and melt it faster. The 2012 fires in Siberia released so much soot that they helped create a shocking melt of Greenland’s ice sheet. Over the course of a few weeks in July that year, 95 percent of the surface melted. That could become a yearly occurrence by 2100 if temperatures continue to rise along with wildfire activity.

Forest in other parts of the globe are also feeling the effects of climate change. In the western U.S., wildfire season has lengthened by 75 days compared to 40 years ago. Additionally, rising temperatures and shrinking snowpack have helped drive an increase in the number of large forest fires. In Australia, fire danger is also increasing, if not the total number of fires, due to a similar trend of hotter, dryer weather

Perhaps not surprisingly then, the current Northwest Territories fires have been fueled by hot and dry weather. Yellowknife’s June high temperatures were 3.8°F above normal highs while rainfall was only 15 percent of normal. Through July 15, high temperatures have been running 4°F above July averages and the city has only seen 2 percent of its normal rainfall for the month. While these conditions can't be tied specifically to climate change, they're in line with those trends.

The fires have shut down parts of territory’s Highway 3, a main thoroughfare, and inundated Yellowknife with a thick haze of smoke and ash. The city’s 19,000 residents are also under a health warning. At points last week, the smoke plume was whisked south across the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan and even reaching the Dakotas, 2,000 miles away.

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By mememine69 (54434)
on July 17th, 2014

Climate blame “BELIEF” is just “faith” not proof of anything at all nor is it “science”!
Can any of you remaining “believers” prove that science “believes” as much as you “believers” do and beyond science’s 32 years of 95% certainty of “belief”?

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By Scott Sinnock (Woodstock/IL/60098)
on August 4th, 2014

Were there perhaps other causes, like fire prevention over long periods that enables underbrush that dries quickly to flourish and provides the fuel to spread across the tiaga between forest stands? That used to be cited as a big cause of large forest fires along with monoculture and bark beetles before climate change appropriated all other causes as by products of warming. So have human environmental impacts other than climate change had anything to do with these big fires?

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By Dave (Basking Ridge, NJ 07920)
on July 17th, 2014

Overall forest loss from deforestation and forest degradation is known and widely reported to account for a significant proportion (10 - 20%) of all man made emissions of CO2. Wildfires are obviously a component of that. So are there any estimates as to how much boreal wildfires currently contribute to global CO2 emissions?

I also wonder, particularly in view of the recent article here concerning California’s drought and the likely unsustainable use of groundwater, how much precious CA water now gets and will get used in helping to battle wildfires, thus further aggravating the already stressed water-food-energy ‘tug of war’.

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By June Roullard (Vienna, ME 04360)
on July 18th, 2014

I wish that media stories would stop inserting statements like “although these conditions can’t be tied specifically to climate change”...  As Kevin Trenberth has said, all weather is now happening in the context of a warming planet. 
It is the trend that matters, not the individual event.  And increased computing power is now allowing development of attribution studies that in some cases are able to tie events like the 2010 forest fires in Siberia to climate change.
When you put the qualifier in the statement, that’s what many people focus on, and so they dismiss the rest of it.

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By June Roullard (Vienna, ME 04360)
on July 18th, 2014

Oops…in my post above I said the Siberian fires were in 2010, but I was mistaken.  They were in 2012.  Incidentally, there are at this minute more massive wildfires in Siberia.

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