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Smoke over the skies of North America is another climate change warning

Wildfire smoke over North America on Aug 15, 2017, red dots are active fires (map by NOAA)
Roger Annis, A Socialist In Canada, Aug 15 2017 - 14:30

VANCOUVER, Canada—For nearly two weeks, beginning August 1, the skies over Vancouver were filled with the smoke of forest fires burning in central and northern British Columbia. The smoke from those fires and others farther afield has waxed and waned over much of North America since July. Three days ago, Vancouver and coastal BC and Washington State gained a respite thanks to a weather front from the Pacific Ocean that pushed the smoke eastward. But the respite could end soon, depending on the vagaries of weather patterns.

On August 14, there were 162 fires burning in BC. Thousands of firefighters are battling to quell the fires, but new ones keep sparking, caused by continued dry weather and winds and lighting, or sometimes by human negligence. Since April 1, there have been more than 1,012 fires in the province.

According to the BC Wildfire Service, some 729,000 hectares of forest and grassland has burned to date in 2017, the second-highest annual total for the province since records began in 1950. The fire season is far from over, with August being the hottest and driest month of the year.[1]

During the time the smoke hung over Vancouver region, public health authorities advised people to exercise caution in strenuous outdoors exercise due to smoke particulates in the air. People with respiratory ailments were advised to seek out clean air indoors. The deeper a person breathes, the deeper the particulates embed in the lungs.

Map of wildfire smoke, generated by Blue Sky Canada for weekend of Aug 12, 13, 2017; darkest colour is thickest smoke

On August 8, a typical day in the smoke, Vancouver region’s air was listed as “unhealthy” on the World Air Quality Index with a score of 100, where 500 is the worst reading. Beijing’s air that day was measured at 42, Mexico City’s air was 80.

The fires have been stoked by a wet spring that boosted vegetation growth followed by a long dry spell. Victoria BC set a record this year for consecutive days without rain—56 as of August 12. Seattle also set a record, 55 days on that same date. Overnight rains on August 12-13 ended the records, but the rainfall amounts were slight.

Tourism operators worried

Tourism is a multi-billion dollar business in Vancouver and in the larger province (revenue of $15.7 billion in 2015). Cruise ships, highways and airplanes bring in tens of thousands of visitors daily (5.5 million visitors in 2016). The mountains that rise from the north shore of Vancouver’s ocean harbour are a big draw for viewing and outdoor activity. But for several weeks in August, the view was dimmed by smoke, or the mountains weren’t visible at all.

Wildfire burns near Cache Creek BC in July 2017 (Darryl Dyck, Canadian Press)

The mountains are only a few kilometers distance from the Vancouver’s downtown core, but they were a world away for viewing when the smoke thickened. One tourist told CBC News that she came to Vancouver for a visit all the way from Beijing in part to escape that city’s heavily polluted air. “I didn’t leave Beijing only to find myself back there,” she complained.

Nature has a way of interrupting the best laid plans of man and woman when it comes to tourism. Except there is nothing “natural” about what has taken place in British Columbia. It is a harbinger of troubled times ahead as the world’s average temperatures rise inexorably under the impact of human industrial and agro-industrial activity.

The scope of the fires

The annual average of wildfire in British Columbia for the years 2006-2016 was 155,000 hectares. The worst year on record was 1958 when 858,000 hectares burned. This year will easily top that.

Wildfires in BC 1993-2016 (graph by West Coast Environmental Law)

Four of the top ten fire seasons in BC since 1950 have occurred in the past eight years. This at a time when more resources than ever are available to fight fires, including efforts to prevent them from breaking out in the first place.

The human impact of this year’s fires in BC is larger than normal due to their proximity to urban areas. Some 8,000 people in the province are presently evacuated from their homes. At the height of the fires in July, 37,000 people were evacuated, including the entire city of Williams Lake (population 11,000).

By comparison to this year’s fires in BC, the Horse River wildfire in Alberta in May 2016 burned 600,000 hectares. It destroyed much of the city of Fort McMurray and prompted a panicked, emergency evacuation of the entire city. Fort McMurray has a population of 85,000 and is the major service center for the tar sands region of northern Alberta.[2]

Across the northern hemisphere, the boreal forest is burning. It’s a bad year in Siberia (eastern Russia) where some 436,500 hectares have burned to date. (That compares favorably to the same date in 2016 when more than one million hectares had burned.) [3]

In all of Canada, the years 2004 to 2014 saw two to four million hectares burned each year.

In Australia, bushfires annual averages vary widely. The worst year from 1995 to 2004 was in 2003 when 4.7 million hectares burned. In 2003, 2006-07 and 2009, bushfires in Victoria State alone burned a combined area of over three million hectares.

Scandinavia is rather protected from forest fires by typically moist summers. Not so in southern Europe, where summer temperatures have been soaring. Wildfires in Portugal in August 2016 burned some 120,000 hectares. In June of this year, some 60 people died in a new round of ferocious wildfires.

The costs of fighting the increasingly harsher fires are rising accordingly. In BC, some 3,700 firefighters are battling the blazes; many of them have been hired from other Canadian provinces and from Mexico and faraway Australia. $293 million has been spent this year, and counting.

Firefighting adds to all the other steeply rising costs of changes to climate and weather around the globe.

Causes

The increased frequency of forest and bush fires around the world can be traced to three large trends.

One is the warming of average annual temperatures, causing declines or changes to snow and rainfall patterns in vulnerable forests and drying of summer conditions.

Two, in the northern hemisphere’s boreal forest at least, is the ongoing practice of clear cutting. In Canada, more than a century of industrial plunder of the forests has left them much more vulnerable to fire. Large trees are less vulnerable to fire, while natural forests with their wider variety of tree species rebound more quickly. Fire has always been an essential part of the renewal of established forests, but that gets compromised by clear cutting that reduces the average size of trees and by re-planting for commercial purposes that reduces the variety of species.

Incredibly, forest companies in British Columbia are still targeting the few remaining old growth forests for clear cutting. Government agencies—lapdogs for the forest industry—happily grant permission. Helicopters are now commonly used to log the sides and tops of mountains.[4]

Three is fire suppression practices over the decades that have caused a buildup of fuel on forest floors. Much of forest fire suppression has little to do with protecting human populations and everything to do with protecting the revenues of the lumber and paper industries. In 2015 in Canada, the forest industry sold $22.1 billion worth of products, ranking it the fourth largest natural resource extracting industry in the country (after oil, minerals, and electrical generation, in that order).

Rising global temperatures are also increasing the damage to forests from insect infestations because winter temperatures are no longer cold enough to kill overwintering larvae. The pine forests of western Canada and the United States have been devastated by the spread of the mountain pine beetle.[5] Spruce beetle infestations are expanding in North America.

‘Green Vancouver’

There is an irony to the forest fire smoke over Vancouver, caused, in part, by rising global temperatures. Municipal governments in the region and the provincial government tout themselves as being in the forefront of a ‘green’ revolution. Vancouver city (population of 630,000 in an urban region of 2.5 million), in particular, has declared that it aims to be the ‘greenest’ city in the world by the year 2020. They are anything but.

In reality, Vancouver and BC excel in ‘green’ public relations, also known as ‘greenwashing’.

* The Port of Vancouver, owned and operated by the federal government, is the largest exporter of coal in North America. The port is a doormat for the coal producers of Wyoming and Montana. They are obliged to make the long trek of their products by rail to Vancouver for export because in the name of combating global warming, states and municipalities up and down the U.S. west coast are refusing to allow new or expanded coal export terminals.

* The city of Vancouver likes to pretend that coal exports are not its fault because the region’s two export terminals are located in other municipalities. But the city’s true colours are shown by the fact that is a leading culprit in the grim, house price bubble that has gripped the entire region. One consequence of the house price spiral is ongoing urban sprawl and expansion of roads and bridges (including paving over valuable farmland in the Fraser River valley and delta) as people and industry seek cheaper places to build houses or warehouses and factories. The urban sprawl contributes significantly to rising greenhouse gas emissions.

* Vancouver’s airport and cruise ship terminals have grown hugely to accommodate the tourism industry, contributing significantly to rising emissions.

* Passenger rail transport–within and beyond the metropolitan region–has withered away to almost nothing as the provincial and federal governments turned their backs on rail. Even the billions of dollars spent on rapid (rail) transit have not kept pace with rising automobile traffic. In 2011, 71 per cent of commuters used cars while only 20 per cent used transit (similar proportions to those of Toronto and Montreal). A May 2016 news article reports, “The percentage of Metro [Vancouver] residents who commute in cars for all of their trips—work, school, shopping, entertainment—is 57 per cent, exactly where it was in 1994.”

* Whereas the Fraser River valley and delta offer a large potential for expanding local food production, farmland is being paved over for urban sprawl and monoculture crops for short-term profit prevail over concerns for food security. A 2011 study at the University of Victoria on food security reported (using 2007 data), “BC agriculture has shifted markedly in the past 50 years from a fairly balanced production of meat, fish, dairy, grain, fruit and vegetables to one that is now more heavily focused on production of grains grown for livestock, meat, fish and dairy, with less local and more import reliance on cereals for human consumption, fruit and vegetables.” A November 2014 Globe and Mail article was headlined, ‘California droughts could leave B.C. high and dry on food’.

* Vancouver’s ‘green’ credentials are under severe test by the proposed tripling of capacity of Kinder Morgan Inc’s Trans Mountain pipeline route that brings Alberta oil and bitumen to the port of Vancouver for export. Most municipal governments oppose the expansion, but their arguments are weak. They cite the dangers of oil spills and some cite the inadequacy or failure of consultation with affected First Nations communities along the route. Important as these are, the most compelling argument against the pipeline is that it worsens Canada’s already significant contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. But that is something that few political leaders voice because it would cast an uncomfortable spotlight on the climate vandalism of established industry.[6]

The three modern-day scourges

Human civilization faces three grave threats to its survival and prosperity: global warming due to human industrial and agro-industrial activity; rising poverty and social inequity; and rising war and militarism, including the threat of nuclear weapons.

We have seen above how the municipal governments in Vancouver region and the provincial government share direct culpability for the global warming emergency. They are also culpable for rising poverty. Vancouver and British Columbia are poverty ghettos, where starvation-level minimum wage ($11.35 as of Sept 15, 2017) and welfare rates prevail. Prospects for good paying and socially constructive jobs are dim. The aforementioned housing price bubble combined with the abandonment of responsibility by governments in building quality, affordable housing adds to the mix.

On the front of war and militarism, the government in Ottawa carries the can. It is closely allied with the Trump-led U.S. government in waging war in such places as Ukraine, Syria and Iraq, and threatening yet more war in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Ottawa does so with no opposition whatsoever from other levels of government in the country.

As Vancouver residents await the likely return of forest fire smoke dimming the summer sky once again, it’s high time to clear the political air. Time is running out to move decisively to save the planet and mitigate the worst of what capitalism’s greed and excess is delivering. The triple scourge facing humanity must be defeated. We need to mobilize like never before and blaze new paths to a society of social justice and ecological harmony.

Notes:
[1] Daily wildfire reports are broadcast by the BC government here.

[2] See my article on the lessons of the May 2016 burning of Fort McMurray: City at the heart of the Alberta tar sands is burning to the ground, May 4, 2016. [3] Report by NASA, Aug 3, 2017. [4] See my brief article of December 2014: The false economy of Canada’s plundering of its forest resource. [5] See my news dossier of December 2011, Open season on beetle-damaged pine forests in British Columbia. See also the book Empire of the Beetle: How Human Folly and a Tiny Bug are Killing North America’s Great Forests, by Andrew Nikiforuk, Greystone Books, 2011. [6] A pro-fossil fuel writer and supporter of the new Green Party-supported NDP government in BC has penned an article arguing that the main cause of this year’s wildfire damage is the neglect by the preceding Liberal Party government of controlled burning and other measures to reduce the frequency and intensity of fires. He writes, “And while environmental groups loudly proclaim the fires are caused by climate change — a conclusion that conveniently promotes their demands to eliminate fossil fuels — it doesn’t lay the blame where it actually belongs.”

In an apparent case of wanting his cake and eating it too, he later writes in the article, “Is climate change a factor? Of course.” But no explanation of this assertion is offered. Here’s one: According to NASA, 2016 was the third year in a row to set a new record for global average surface temperatures.

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