Wildfires as ecological tipping points

Wildfire is seen from MacDonald Island Park near Fort McMurray, Alberta May 3, 2016. Courtesy Kangen Lee/Handout via REUTERS

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President
Illinois Renewable Energy Association

The overwhelming environmental news this week is the wildfire that forced over 88,000 people to evacuate Fort McMurray, Alberta. Eighty percent of the homes in one neighborhood were destroyed. Stunned residents lost everything, including pets. Fortunately, no deaths or serious injuries have been reported. Hazardous evacuation routes were described as “apocalyptic” by drivers who could barely see a foot in front of their vehicles through the dense smoke. Chaos and panic reigned.

The average May high temperature for Fort McMurray is 50 F; the record for the day was 82 F; the temperature on the day of the fire was 90 F.

Starting in dry timber west of the city, the fire jumped the Athabasca River before proceeding on its ferocious course. Currently, with still more smaller fires burning, no end is in sight. The Province of Alberta has declared the area a disaster zone. According to local sources, “conditions remained ‘tinder-dry’” throughout the province. Not only Fort McMurray is in danger; Alberta has broadened the evacuation zone.

A few days later, another wildfire was reported in British Columbia at the same latitude as Fort McMurray.

What causes these dreadful conflagrations? The first western wildfires were attributed to an accumulation of years of unburned fuel which simply must be removed (by fire) and conditions would return to normal. But the Yellowstone fires of 1988 were actually the beginning of a tipping point that is climate-triggered. In the blink of an earth-eye, humans are raising earth’s average temperature by more than half its variation during the past 600 million years – the entire lifetime of complex organisms on earth. Trees are not only dry – they are like kiln-dried lumber so that any spark, whether from lightning or a careless person, can ignite a conflagration. After 1988, hotter summers were the new normal.

Pine bark beetles, formerly blamed for the demise of thousands of trees, now are about twice as numerous as in the past, a result of unusually warm winters. Scenic, mature green trees have been reduced to ugly brown sticks composing a new landscape.

Recently, a fisherman friend of ours, Bob Piros, followed his hobby in a trout stream near Winter Park, Colorado, while his daughters skied. As he moved up and down the stream, he was horrified to find miles of tepee-like structures along the banks. Upon investigation, he discovered that these were lodgepole pines that had died in vast numbers. They were stacked after being cut down along roads and trails and in campgrounds to avoid injury.

The North American West is not the only region experiencing the devastating effects of hotter summers. Other wildfires throughout the world have wreaked havoc. Australia, South America and parts of Europe, Asia and Africa have experienced wildfires leaving people homeless and permanently changing cities. More fires, longer fires and loss of lives and homes continue unabated.

To many these disasters are considered unique recent tragedies, expanding during the past few years; not “normal.” But Elizabeth A. Hadley suggests that to those born after 1988, they will be something that has always has occurred during their lifetimes and will become the “new normal.” An earth that we can barely fathom will become their new world.

As of this writing, the fire reported, one of 40 in Alberta, doubled in size in one day. No end is in sight. While the cause is unknown, the dry conditions which enabled its rapid growth are just one tipping point scientists predicted will accelerate if we fail to curtail greenhouse gas emissions.

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