Author: Gaye Taylor

Early wildfires, heat waves show grim signs of global climate crisis

Source(s): The Energy Mix
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An early, aggressive wildfire season in Alberta, alarming, summer-like temperatures in parts of the Mediterranean, scorching, road-melting heat to South Asia, and torrential rain causing deadly floods in Congo-Kinshasa, are all signs this spring of anthropogenic climate change and a “grim augur of things to come.”

Relatively cooler weather is helping the more than 1,000 firefighters battling blazes across the northern and east-central parts of Alberta, but the province remains in a state of emergency and has asked the federal government for military assistance. Nearly 30,000 people have been displaced from their homes, and several precious structures have been lost to the flames, with small Indigenous communities reporting significant losses, reports CBC News. As of Tuesday morning, 89 wildfires were burning across the province, 24 of them deemed out of control. The Globe and Mail says that nearly 400,000 hectares have been burned so far this year, compared to 417 hectares this time last year.

The government said it could be months before all the blazes are brought under control, Reuters writes. Alberta’s oil and gas producers have shut in at least 280,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day—more than 3% of Canada’s output—taking precautionary measures to protect equipment and workers.

Calgary-based TC Energy said it has temporarily shuttered two compressor stations along its Nova Gas Transmission Line system, which “connects most of the natural gas produced in western Canada to domestic and export markets,” Reuters adds. The wildfires are also threatening key highways, leaving truckers stranded and key supply chains for farming and other industries broken.

May is typically a fire month for Alberta, with so much dead organic matter lying around after the winter. But this year, a combination of unusual and early heat and ongoing drought has generated more volatile conditions. A similar situation may unfold in the Northwest Territories, with winter long gone—spring having arrived sooner than usual—and hot, dry conditions forecast for summer.

Climate change is causing wildfire seasons in Canada to grow longer and more severe, said Mike Flannigan, research chair for predictive services, emergency management and fire science at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops. He noted that Alberta’s spring wildfire season is already “off to a roaring start.”

The combination of more frequent and intense lightning storms with ever drier vegetation is leading to “higher intensity fires that are difficult to impossible to extinguish,” he added. Which means that “we’re almost moving to fire years instead of fire seasons.”

“That’s the result because we’re getting warmer.”

Alberta Seeks Federal Aid after Cutting Wildfire Budget

Alberta premier and United Conservative Party (UCP) leader Danielle Smith petitioned the federal government to aid the province in this “unprecedented situation.” The Canadian Press reports that Ottawa will provide financial aid to those affected, and Smith said military personnel would be deployed to prevent looting and maintain order in evacuated communities.

But documents obtained under a Freedom of Information request and supplied to CP show that Alberta’s UCP government may have lost valuable firefighting time—especially in remote places—after cutting its budget for certain wildfire programs.

The province’s Rapattack team, of an elite, 63-member crew trained to rappel from helicopters into remote or inaccessible fires, was eliminated by cuts in 2019. The team was usually deployed to put out small fires sparked by lightning. They moved quickly to extinguish them before they merged and morphed into larger ones.

“We could have been difference-makers,” said Jordan Erlandson, a former Rapattack member.

Ryan Kalmanovitch, a contract firefighter now battling blazes near Edson, agrees the team is “definitely missed.” Rapattackers could be helping set fire perimeters and dousing hot spots, Kalmanovitch said.

“They would be able to action those while they’re small and that would allow us not to divert resources,” Kalmanovitch said. “They would absolutely be useful, maybe more so than other crews.”

The documents show that some of Alberta’s alternatives to Rapattack would cost valuable hours in the early stages of a blaze, CP reports. “These activities can be performed by other trained crews by landing or driving to a nearby spot and driving in,” said a note from one government forester. “Clearly this will take additional time.”

Smith’s request for aid from Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government comes around six weeks after she described federal climate policy as an “existential threat” to Alberta. Addressing a conservative networking conference in late March, Smith said “the biggest threat” facing Alberta was the federal Liberal and New Democratic Party (NDP) coalition.

Alberta’s provincial election is coming up May 29.

Food Supplies at Risk

The spate of spring wildfires in Canada came as Spain and Portugal confirmed their hottest April on record, with temperatures hovering above 30°C towards the end of the month and cresting close to 40°C in some places, reports BNN Bloomberg. Algeria and Morocco also broiled, experiencing temperatures more typical of a very hot day in July or August, notes the New York Times.

The heat wave across these countries would have been “almost impossible” in the absence of climate change brought on by human activity, according to a report released by the World Weather Attribution initiative. Scientists found that “global heating had made the heat wave at least 100 times more likely, with temperatures up to 3.5°C hotter than they would have been without global heating,” the Guardian reports.

“An event of this extremity would have been almost impossible in the past colder climates, and we will see more intense and more frequent heat waves in the future,” said report co-author Dr. Sjoukje Philip, a researcher at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute.

Co-author Dr. Fatima Driouech, executive coordinator of the Adaptation Metrics and Techniques cluster at Morocco’s Mohammed VI Polytechnic University, warned of looming threats to food security. “The intense heat wave came on top of a multi-year drought, exacerbating the lack of water in the region and threatening 2023 crop yields,” Driouech said.

 “If the weather does not change, it will be zero,” Catalonian maize and sorghum farmer Santi Caudevilla told CNN. “Nothing is going to be harvested.”

Boding ill for Europe’s wildfire season, April was “drier than average south of the Alps, in regions of Mediterranean France, northwestern Scandinavia, the Baltic countries, and much of western Russia,” BNN Bloomberg writes.

Hottest Days on Record

Researchers are also warning that the high spring temperatures could signal the anticipated arrival of an El Niño event this year. Warmer-than-average temperatures over the equatorial eastern Pacific in April were “an early sign for a potential transition to El Niño conditions often leading to warmer global temperatures,” Bloomberg reported, citing Samantha Burgess, deputy director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service.

Extreme, record-breaking heat is also searing swathes of South and Southeast Asia, with cities in Cambodia and Laos experiencing “the hottest days ever recorded in either country,” reports the Washington Post. Vietnam reported an all-time record high of 44.1°C, prompting experts and officials to urge people to stay indoors during the hottest times of day, the Guardian says.

From India to the Philippines, schools and other public buildings were shuttered, as authorities urged people to shelter from the heat at home. “Scorching temperatures melted roads in Bangladesh, and numerous voters fainted as they lined up at polling stations for advance voting in Thailand’s election,” the Post says.

The poor and vulnerable will suffer most in this “pulverizing” heat. The Post points out in a separate report that “approximately 18.3% of Laotians live in poverty and are far more likely to be harmed by elevated temperatures” than their more financially secure peers.

“For much of the world, and especially in many countries in Asia, these hot months are a grim augur of things to come,” the Post writes. This is especially true if the planet shifts, as expected, from the relative cool of its La Niña state into the heat of El Niño.

Speaking with the South China Morning Post, Dileep Mavalankar, director of the Indian Institute of Public Health warned that authorities seem ill-prepared for “what might happen to people if the heat worsens later this year.”

“If El Nino disrupts India’s monsoon season, there will be a deficit of rain and, of course, this will hugely impact agriculture and farming, and, as a result, the economy,” Mavalankar said.

The Post also reports that “an epochal drought in the Horn of Africa has directly impacted some 50 million people in the region and is the bleak subtext lurking behind a morass of armed conflicts.”

But bone-dry heat is not the end of the story for Earth’s unseasonable spring. Far too much water, far too quickly, is being delivered to eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Boulder-heavy flood waters caused by days of torrential rains ripped through the remote mountainous region of South Kivu province last week, smashing houses, ravaging crops, and killing more than 400 people.

The floods constitute “the deadliest natural disaster in Congo’s recent history,” reports Reuters, with more than 5,500 people still unaccounted for.

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