May 31, 2019 - Energy & Environment

Alberta's forests are in flames, smoke spreading into the U.S.

Pyrocumulus clouds from Alberta wildfires seen via satellite imagery.

Towering pyrocumulus clouds seen from satellite imagery on May 26, 2019. Image: Pierre Markuse/Flickr.

It's only the end of May, yet already about 1 million acres of forest have gone up in flames across Alberta, Canada.

Why it matters: The wildfires have caused a sharp deterioration in air quality across western Canada and large swaths of the U.S. The fires are occurring earlier in the season than is typical for this region, and they're a possible sign of a warming planet, in which conditions conducive for such fires are becoming more frequent.

The latest:

  • According to Alberta's wildfire firefighting agency, wildfire danger remains high across the province, which is also the case in parts of neighboring British Columbia.
  • More than 2,000 personnel are battling the blazes.
  • The smoke from these fires turned the skies an eerie orange from Edmonton to North Dakota on Thursday and Friday, with smoke seen via satellite imagery wafting all the way toward the Canadian Arctic, where it can enhance the melting of sea and land ice.

Thousands have been forced to evacuate to avoid the blazes, according to Canadian media reports.

The backdrop: High latitude forests have seen increased wildfires in recent decades, particularly in parts of Canada, Alaska and Russia, though forest management practices and human settlement patterns also play a role. In the case of boreal forest fires in Alaska, recent activity is unprecedented in the context of the past 10,000 years.

  • A robust finding of climate studies is that wildfires are likely to become larger and more intense in parts of the world, such as the American West, as the average temperature warms and snowmelt timing shifts to earlier in the year.

1 ironic thing: The fires forced Alberta Premier Jason Kenney to cancel a public event at a gas station to mark the repeal of Alberta's carbon tax, meant to rein in greenhouse gas emissions.

Kenney, who was elected in mid-April, has made reversing climate change measures a priority of his administration. Alberta is the center of Canada's sizable oil and gas production.

“This is an opportunity to remove this huge dead-weight cost that punishes hard-working people for living ordinary lives in this province," Kenney said Thursday.

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