Tracking wildfire smoke will be crucial for everyone as the planet warms. here’s why

CBC Alberta and Saskatchewan have teamed up for a new pilot series on weather and climate change in the Prairies. Meteorologist Christy Climenhaga will bring her expert voice to the conversation to help explain weather phenomena and climate change and their impact on daily life.

As bleak as it may seem, the smoke-filled post-apocalyptic horizons that have been part of summer on the Prairies for the past few years are likely to be part of our future.

From Edmonton to Regina and everywhere in between, we’ve all witnessed dramatic changes in air quality over the summer months with skies painted red from haze thanks to wildfires burning near our homes. us or sometimes thousands of miles away.

But we’ve also seen an improvement in the technology and the way we track smoke.

The smoke forecast may seem like a shot in the dark, but scientific models are actually able to track its movements and they are constantly evolving to become more accurate.

David Lyder is a Modeling Standards Engineer with the Government of Alberta. His work has included Blue Sky, a publicly available smoke prediction model.

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Scientists say the spread and intensity of wildfires has increased dramatically over the past 50 years. Meteorologist Christy Climenhaga breaks down the three main ways a warming climate can impact fire risk. 1:26

Blue Sky is one of many models used in North America along with models like Canada’s Wildfire Smoke Prediction System or FireWork and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Smoke Prediction System in the United States.

“Smoke forecasting is a complicated system,” he said.

“There are a lot of moving parts: emissions, meteorology, dispersion modeling. And so I think integrating the whole system and how it works is quite difficult.”

Lyder says the information is collected from Natural Resources Canada, satellite imagery and ground reports several times a day to create the Blue Sky model.

“The University of British Columbia takes this data created for them and uses meteorology to disperse the smoke.”

A satellite image shows smoke from fires in British Columbia drifting through Alberta and Saskatchewan in August 2018. (NASA Earth Observatory/NASA GSFC/Lauren Daphin)

During intense and widespread fires, smoke is carried high in the atmosphere and can be caught in the jet stream, traveling enormous distances.

If this smoke stays as a haze high in the sky, it’s relatively harmless, but when it mixes on the surface, it can cause a whole host of problems, including deteriorating air quality.

“The more we know about smoke, the more we discover how toxic it is to humans,” says Mike Flannigan, research chair for predictive services, emergency management and fire science.

“The number of people dying prematurely from smoke from wildfires in Canada is about 2,500 people… so it’s not a trivial thing at all.”

More and more intense forest fires

The past few years around the world – from Australia to California to British Columbia – have been marked by fire. In fact, 2021 was the third worst fire season in British Columbia’s history.

A recently released report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that looked at the impacts humans face with rising temperatures suggests that places that only experience fire every 400 years will experience up to once every 50 years.

And the Prairies have not been spared our active fire seasons and as we look to the future, that will continue.

The 2016 wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alberta, caused $3 billion in insured damage alone and last year the entire town of Lytton, BC was flattened.

As our climate warms, scientists predict longer and more intense fire seasons thanks to our upcoming hot summers and precipitation that doesn’t seem to quite compensate for the heat.

Flannigan says about 6,000 fires burn about 2.5 million hectares every year in Canada.

“It’s doubled since the early 1970s. And my colleagues and I attribute that to human-caused climate change. We can’t be any clearer than that,” he says.

Flannigan says looking even further south could give us a glimpse of our fire future.

“California has seen a six-fold increase in area burned. And I fear what we’re seeing in the United States will happen in Canada.”

A wildfire burns along Highway 1 near Big Sur, California in January 2022. (Nic Coury/Associated Press)

So why the increase?

Flannigan says our fiery future is a factor of three things and it starts with our longer summers.

Fire season traditionally started on April 1 in Alberta, but that changed to March 1 about six or seven years ago, Flannigan said.

Then there is hotter, unstable weather that produces more lightning, increasing the chance of drier uplands coming to life.

Third and arguably most important, Flannigan said, is that as the atmosphere heats up, it sucks moisture from vegetation so it dries out faster.

“The drier the fuel, the easier it is for fires to start and spread.”

Flannigan says these factors lead to higher intensity fires that can be difficult or impossible to extinguish with human resistance alone.

Along with our expectation for generally dry summers, more extreme days like the 2021 heat wave can fan the flames.

“We expect more extreme days in the future across Canada as we continue to warm. So more extremes mean more extreme fires.”

Go beyond the natural cycle of fire

Forest fires have always been an integral part of our ecosystem. However, climate change means we run the risk of these fires occurring far too frequently.

Flannigan says allowing Mother Nature to take her course whenever possible is beneficial to the life cycle of forests.

“Eventually you get a patchwork of recently burned areas and recently burned areas are unlikely to really burn for 20 to 50 years, which helps reduce the likelihood of these catastrophic fires,” Flannigan said.

Motorists on the Trans-Canada Highway drive past trees scorched by the Lytton Creek Wildfire near Lytton, British Columbia, August 15, 2021. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

“Our boreal forest has learned to survive and even thrive in the semi-regular stand regime, renewing and replacing fires. They have strategies to deal with that. But if you start seeing fires every 20 years , our forests will not survive.”

What can we do?

Ellen Whitman, a wildfire research scientist based in Alberta, has studied the history of wildfires in Canada.

“From an ecological point of view, the increase in wildfires can have negative impacts if we see an increase in severity or an increase in short intervals.”

She says that even if a fire doesn’t lead to an evacuation or damaged homes, it can impact water supplies, another major human concern related to climate change.

“The forest protects water quality for us. So when you remove healthy vegetation, you can actually have quite a severe impact on the city’s water supply,” she says.

Despite the dangers, Whitman says there are things to do besides mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.

“We can build our structures in such a way that they are more likely to survive a fire entering a community. We can also design communities in a way that is fire resistant.”

These could include providing multiple evacuation points for people or areas that have very good air filtration so that people can stay in the community but breathe freely if smoke arises.

And to help our forests, says Whitman, it’s essential to manage fuel to keep fires at a lower intensity.

“We can thin the trees to reduce the density of the coniferous fuels that are there. Or by removing the lower branches of the trees and reducing the density of the forest, we can also make that forest more fire resistant from a ecological point of view.

How do you fireproof BC?

With wildfire activity expected to increase in British Columbia in the coming years, what is being done to protect cities, towns and homes from fire? 8:30 am

Our planet is changing. Our journalism too. This story is part of a CBC News initiative called “Our Changing Planet” to show and explain the effects of climate change. Follow the latest news on our Climate and Environment page.