2017 B.C. Wildfires Were Seven to 11 Times Worse Due to Human Climate Influence
Climate change was a factor in the wildfires that swept through 12 million hectares of southern British Columbia in 2017, and will likely make future outbreaks more common, according to a study published late last year in the American Geophysical Union’s Earth’s Future journal.
The research team concluded that the fires consumed seven to 11 times more territory than would have been expected if not for human influences on the climate, the Globe and Mail reports.
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“Our climate is changing as a result of human influence and Canadians are already noticing the effects,” said lead author Megan Kirchmeier-Young, an Environment and Climate Change Canada research scientist at the University of Victoria’s Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium.
“Understanding the link between human-caused climate change and extreme events like these wildfires will help us to focus adaptation plans, and will help groups that do work in any of those sectors understand that climate is something that they need to be considering, if they’re not already.”
The Globe notes that the study adds to a “growing body of research linking climate change and extreme weather events such as heat waves, flooding, and retreating sea ice. Federal scientists say the risk of Western fires since 2015 has increased two to six times due to human-induced warming and that there were more fires than ever last year, with the total area burned about double longer-term averages.”
The costs of those extreme events “are already immense,” the Globe adds. “B.C. spent C$668-million in 2017 to combat some 1,500 fires that chewed through the equivalent of 12,160 square kilometres of land, prompting an extended state of emergency and forcing the evacuation of more than 65,000 people.”
The 2018 fire season blew through the previous year’s record, burning 12,985 square kilometres, producing air quality warnings in Alberta, and sending thick smoke as far as Northern Ontario.
The study used attribution analysis to compare the past decade of wildfire activity with data from 1961-1970, determining that extreme temperatures were at least 20 times more likely in 2017 due to human factors. “The model did not account for changes in forest management or human ignition sources. Nor did it directly weigh the impacts from pine beetle infestations or repeated suppression over time, which the authors say could result in larger fires,” the Globe states. But the researchers said the results “are consistent with previous studies demonstrating that climate change is an important driver of changes in fire behaviour in many regions in North America, and that large fires like those in 2017 in B.C. are more likely in the future.”
“The profound influence of climate change on wildfire extremes in B.C. demonstrated in this analysis is likely reflected in other regions and is expected to intensify,” the study concluded. “As such, this relationship will require increasing attention in many sectors, including forest management, public health, and infrastructure.”