Welcome back to The World Weekly, where we deconstruct the biggest news stories and place the seemingly local developments in global context. This week we are discussing the wildfires in Canada which have shrouded parts of the country and the US in an orange haze. You must have seen the pictures from New York that went viral online. Wildfires are getting worse because of climate change, experts say. Here's what you need to know.
A man looks through the haze at the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, New Jersey, US, on Wednesday. (AP)
Behind Canada's veil of smoke
Hazy skies in New York are a demonstration of the very real impact of the climate crisis as across the border, Canada, experiences what may be its worst wildfire season on record, according to experts. The fires, which have been burning for six weeks now, have scorched 3.3 million hectares of land. At least 413 fires were active as of last Sunday – with 249 reportedly out of control – in nearly all 10 provinces and territories of the country.
The fires have destroyed homes, forced the evacuation of 120,000 people, and impacted oil and gas production in the main crude-producing province of Alberta. Canadian firefighters are getting help from the country’s military as well as at least 1,000 firefighters from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the US. The smoke – encouraged by atmosphere patterns – has shrouded cities in Canada and the US, threatening to disrupt flights and forcing people to mask up or stay indoors.
In the US, smoke has drifted as far as South Carolina. New York on Tuesday had the worst air quality in the world – higher than Delhi, from where I am writing, which is perpetually on the list, and where we regularly experience the ill-effects of crop-burning in neighbouring states. Inhaling this smoke is dangerous for those with lung or heart conditions, people who are pregnant, and children. Larger particles, like soot and dust, can irritate the lining of the noses, mouths, throats, and lungs, while smaller particles, toxic gases and volatile organic compounds can enter bloodstreams from the lungs, causing all sorts of short- and long-term health issues.
What’s the big deal?
We know that Canada has a wildfire season which lasts from May till October, then why are these fires such a big deal? Firstly, this year, Canada has seen an “unprecedented” 2,214 fires, which have already burnt an area roughly the size of Belgium, which is 13 times the average of the last 10 years. Fires are rarely this intense or this widespread so early on in the season.
Second, while wildfires are common in Canada’s western provinces, this year they have been reported in the eastern provinces of Nova Scotia, Quebec and Ontario. Quebec is currently the worst hit with 164 active fires as of Monday and 10,000 evacuated. Warm and dry conditions that have exacerbated the fires are expected to continue to all through summer, with an elevated risk of wildfires from the west coast of British Columbia to Atlantic Canada in the east till August.
This situation is not merely a result of coincidence. Experts have said wildfires have worsened over the past years because of the human-induced climate crisis. "Over the last 20 years, we have never seen such a large area burned so early in the season," said Yan Boulanger, a researcher with Natural Resources Canada, told Reuters. "Partially because of climate change, we're seeing trends toward increasing burned area throughout Canada."
Canada’s wildfires come after it experienced a scorching late-May heatwave with temperatures in Nova Scotia’s capital Halifax – 33°C on Thursday – around 10 degrees Celsius above normal for this time of year. Last month, Lytton, a village in the province of British Columbia, saw temperatures touch a record-breaking 49.6°C. Warmer air pulls moisture out of the soil increasing the fire risk.
An Annapolis Royal firefighter sprays hot spots in the Birchtown area, while tackling wildfires in Shelburne County, Nova Scotia, Canada, on June 3. (Reuters)
Additionally, Atlantic Canada received low snowfall this winter, followed by an exceptionally dry spring. Halifax only received a third of the average rainfall between March and May. Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba – the county’s prairies are all experiencing drought-like conditions – and, according to Canada’s Drought Monitor, all 10 provinces and territories are seeing abnormal dryness, moderate or severe drought. Dry and hot weather also results in more lightning. In the normal season, more than half the fires are started by lightning, which causes 85% of the destruction. In the worst-affected Quebec this time, the fires were caused by lightning. In other provinces, still-smouldering cigarette butts and sparks from passing trains were among the reasons the fires started.
“This is our new reality,” Mike Flannigan, research chair for predictive services, emergency management and fire science at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia, told Al Jazeera. “We’re on a downward trajectory. Things are going to get worse and worse and worse.” A 2017 US Global Change Research Program report said there was a "profound increase in forest fire activity”. “Hotter and drier weather and earlier snowmelt mean that wildfires in the West start earlier in the spring, last later into the fall, and burn more acreage.” In its fourth assessment report , the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said, "Warmer summer temperatures are expected to extend the annual window of high fire ignition risk by 10-30%."
“We tend to think about wildfire smoke as being an acute or short-term exposure, but we’re seeing that we’re having these events more frequently. Wildfires are more common. They’re happening for longer periods of time,” Jill Baumgartner, an associate professor in the School of Population and Global Health at McGill University in Montreal told Al Jazeera. “We need to start thinking about this probably [as], ‘What are the longer-term impacts of wildfire smoke on health?'”
A climate activist holds a banner in Trevi Fountain, surrounded by vegetable charcoal that was poured in the water, during a demonstration against fossil fuels, in Rome, Italy, on May 21. (Reuters)
A wake-up call
The orange haze over the US is a reminder that what is happening in Canada is in no way isolated. Some of the smoke, which has already moved over Greenland and Iceland since June 1, was also expected to make its way to Norway, according to Atmosphere and climate scientists with the Norwegian Climate and Environmental Research Institute on Thursday. They expected to be able to see or smell the smoke, though not enough to have any major health impact. This is similar to the haze observed in Southeast Asia, where peat fires, some illegally started to clear land for planting, have turned into a transboundary air pollution issue. In 2019, the haze – observed across Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Philippines – cost Indonesia alone US$5 billion in medical expenditure. The 2015 episode caused 40,000 to 100,000 additional deaths in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, according to studies.
Wildfires across the world are becoming more intense. The 2019-29 bushfires in Australia, later named the Black Summer, resulted in the loss of 34 lives, 3 billion animals and 18 million hectares of land. According to report by the United Nations, by 2090, global wildfires are expected to rise in intensity by 57%.
Not just wildfires, floods, droughts, and heatwaves – nearly all weather phenomena have become more extreme. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged that climate change has made weather events more “frequent” and that Canada needs to be able to better respond to these events “by continuing our fight against climate change, continuing to lower our emissions, continuing to transform our economy so as to create good jobs and protect future generations”. But his statement is made in bad faith. Alberta’s tar sands are the fourth largest oil producer in the world. Among the Group of 20 major economies (G20), Canada ranks behind only Saudi Arabia when it comes to per capita emissions, and ahead of Australia, Bloomberg reports. Trudeau’s government is also behind the expansion of the highly controversial Trans Mountain Pipeline System (TMPL).
In an article published in the peer-reviewed journal Earth System Science Data on Thursday, 50 top scientists warned that between 2013-2022, "human-induced warming has been increasing at an unprecedented rate of over 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade.” Record-high greenhouse gas emissions and diminishing air pollution have caused an unparalleled acceleration in global warming, they said. All these are important to remember as the world prepares another for another chapter of the UN climate conference (Cop28) in November (controversially hosted by the United Arab Emirates). "An annual update of key indicators of global change is critical in helping the international community and countries to keep the urgency of addressing the climate change crisis at the top of the agenda," said co-author and scientist Maisa Rojas Corradi, who is also the environment minister of Chile. All we can hope is that world leaders will listen.
Norway seeks to open vast ocean area to deep-sea mining
Norway’s government is readying plans to open an area of ocean nearly the size of Germany to deep-sea mining as it seeks to become the first country to extract battery metals from its sea floor, FT reports. Norway’s environment agency has strongly opposed the plan. It said in a consultation response this year that the proposal violated Norway’s legal framework for seabed exploration by failing to provide enough sustainability data.
The Intercept interviews Imran Khan
In the year since he was ousted, Pakistan's former prime minister Imran Khan has been shot, arrested, abandoned by party workers, and slapped with dozens of cases (including murder). What is going on in his head? He sits down with The Intercept to discuss his career, the political crisis facing Pakistan and his diminishing hope for a negotiated solution.
Stop trying to make a "good" social media site
And for the weekend read, as Facebook races to release its own version of Twitter, Erik Hoel writes about, what he says is, the futile exercise to make a "good" social media site. It's like trying to outrun human nature. Do you agree?
Picture of the week
Police officers take away a member of the public in the Causeway Bay area on the eve 34th anniversary of China's Tiananmen Square massacre in Hong Kong, on Saturday (June 3). China tightened access to Tiananmen Square in central Beijing on Sunday (June 4), the anniversary of the military suppression of 1989 pro-democracy protests that left a still unknown number of people dead and discussions and commemorations forbidden within the country. In Hong Kong, which was the last Chinese-controlled territory to hold commemorations, eight people, including activists and artists, were detained on the eve of the anniversary, underscoring the city’s shrinking room for freedom of expression. Police said late Sunday they arrested a woman for allegedly obstructing police officers in performing their duties and took 23 other people away on suspicion of breaching public peace for further investigation. (Image, text: AP)
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Written and edited by Sanya Mathur. Produced by Nirmalya Dutta.
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