Wildfires Burn More Than 1 Million Acres in Quebec, Canada; 121 Firefighters Called in For Help

On May 25th, a large thunderstorm ignited wildfires across Quebec. They have been burning ever since.

In total, more than 1 million acres (or about 1000 square miles) of forest had burned as of July 9th. The fires had become so severe that by July 5th, they’d shut off power to more than 500,000 residents (10% of the Quebec population), prompted Quebec to declare a state of emergency, and threatened many towns throughout the region. A vast pall of smoke hung over much of the area, stretching as far as Ontario, some 400 miles away, where severe smog resulted in air hazard, health warnings, and pleas from officials for residents to limit driving.

The following video provides an excellent description of this major fire-related smog event:

Temporary relief came when rains swept through the area on July 7th and 8th. But the fires quickly recovered causing Quebec to send out pleas for additional fire crews from the Northeastern US and broader Canada. So far, Maine, Massachusetts and British Columbia have responded by sending a total of 121 firefighters to battle the massive blazes.

Quebec Wildfires

(Quebec Wildfires on July 9th. Image source: Lance-Modis)

In the above Aqua satellite image provided by NASA, you can see a number of these large fires burning in the vicinity of southern Hudson bay in the northwest region of Quebec. The fires still raged after a number of rainstorms swept through the area on July 7th and 8th.

Adding insult to injury, a train carrying 72 cars laden with crude oil derailed and exploded in the Quebec town of Lac Megantic, likely killing 50 people and forcing over 2,000 to evacuate. The wildfires and oil train explosion formed a hot concoction of global warming and Canadian dependence on petroleum this week that made for a very volatile, damaging and deadly mixture.

Conditions in Context

Northern Quebec is yet one more Arctic region to experience large wildfires this summer. Northern Canada, Alaska and Siberia have all also seen large and powerful fires burning near or above the Arctic circle. Most fires have been ignited by dry or heat-wave conditions. In the case of Canada, Alaska and Siberia, temperatures surged from the high 80s to the mid 90s. One central Alaska location recorded an all-time record of 98 degrees Fahrenheit. Resulting thunderstorms in these areas sparked massive tundra, peat, and arboreal forest fires.

These Arctic wildfires and heat waves are particularly disturbing when you factor in a new Los Alamos study showing that soot from forest fires is a more powerful amplifying feedback to human warming than previously estimated. Soot generated from this burning is more local to remaining sea and land ice. Wind and weather can deposit this soot onto icy regions reducing their albedo and hampering their resilience to the 24 hour summer sun.

These fires also occur in a region that is, increasingly, emitting more and more methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — additional amplifying feedbacks that contribute both to Arctic warming and to larger global warming. High volumes of methane in tundra, peat, and permafrost melt lakes may also provide trigger zones that ignite these kinds of Arctic fires. In these areas, methane concentrations are sometimes high enough to burn if ignited by a spark, lightning, or a wildfire raging in the area. Though it seems counter-intuitive, these combined conditions may make the Arctic one of the most vulnerable regions to burning from massive fires as the effects of human global warming progress.

The northwestern area of Quebec primarily features arboreal forest. But sporadic regions of permafrost dot the area and melt/decay of this permafrost has been particularly rapid as warmth has advanced northward over the past few decades. This year, the driest spring and early summer in 40 years led to conditions that would encourage the record burning from May to July. As of July 9th, three very large fires were still raging in the vicinity of James Bay, some of them devouring woodlands at a speed of near 20 miles per hour.

A strong low pressure system is forming over Quebec today and is predicted to deepen before moving northeast by Saturday. This storm may bring more rains to the fire stricken area. As of today, there were some reports of light rain, high humidity and fog. All conditions that are likely to aid firefighting and containment efforts. It is worth noting that, thus far, rainfall has not been enough to alleviate record dry conditions in the area. It is also worth pointing out that fires rapidly re-surged to dangerous levels after previous rains fell in early July. So firefighters and communities in Quebec may be in it for the long haul.

Links:

BC Sends 100 Firefighters to Quebec

Quebec Families told 30 Missing After Train Crash are Likely Dead

15 Massachusetts Firefighters Sent to Quebec to Battle Massive Blazes

Climate Change Pushing Extreme Events into Higher Gear: PAC 2013 Enters 4th Week, Greenland Melt Hits 27%, US Sees Powerful Storms Spawned by Derecho, and Ongoing Western Drought Spawns 3rd Record Colorado Fire

This past week has hosted a variety of extreme and unprecedented weather events. In the US, storms pummeled a region from the Dakotas to the US East Coast while Colorado suffered its worst wildfire ever recorded, the third time such a dubious record has been broken in the past year. And, in the Arctic, a persistent cyclone (PAC 2013) ended its 3rd week of ice thinning as Greenland melt blew through the usual summer maximum with hardly a pause.

US Derecho, Severe Storms

A storm system that spawned numerous severe thunderstorms, high wind events, hail, heavy rain, and sporadic tornadoes swept through a broad swath of the northern, central, and eastern United States from Tuesday through Thursday. Major power outages were reported over this broad region and, sadly, one death occurred when a little boy lost his life to falling trees in Virginia on Thursday.

This combined derecho and severe thunderstorm event, though less severe than last year’s June 29th ‘Hurricane over Land,’ still resulted in major impacts. According to Jeff Masters, from Weather Underground:

NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center (SPC) logged 376 reports of damaging thunderstorm wind gusts in the 15 hours ending at 11:25 pm EDT Thursday night, and three of these gusts were 74 mph or greater. SPC is now acknowledging that Wednesday’s bow echo that traveled 600 miles from Indiana to New Jersey was a low-end derecho, with over 150 damaging wind reports. The most impressive thunderstorm winds from the derecho occurred in Wabash County, Indiana, where a “macroburst” produced winds of 90 – 100 mph across an area seven miles long and three miles wide, destroying three buildings and causing extensive tree damage. Total damage from the two-day severe weather outbreak over the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic will likely run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

You can view the progression of yesterday’s derecho in the NOAA/National Weather Service radar sequence here:

derecho_jun12

Western Drought and Colorado Fires

Meanwhile, the western drought, still covering over 44% of the US, spawned the most damaging fire in Colorado history. Again.

The Black Forest Fire has now destroyed nearly 400 homes, killed 2 people, forced nearly 40,000 people to evacuate, and burned over 18,000 acres. Last year, the High Parks Fire and then the Waldo Canyon Fire each successively broke the record, set in 2002 for the most damaging fire in Colorado history. Now, just one year later, the Black Forest Fire has again taken the record.

Three record damaging fires in one year is anything but normal. But, according to climate forecasts, things are going to get much worse for Coloradans. According to this US Department of Agriculture study, under a ‘moderate global warming scenario’ in which Colorado temperatures rise by an additional 1 degree Celsius by 2050, the area burned by forest fires would increase by 2.8 to 6.6 times the current level.

Fuel for the Colorado fires is provided by an embedded drought which has persisted in the region since last spring. Unfortunately, a switch to mild La Nina conditions in the Pacific may indicate that the US drought is set to expand once more.

Droughts are also predicted to grow more severe for the southwestern and central US as global temperatures rise. And this projected increase in drought conditions not only has implications for increasing risk of fire, it also drastically impacts US food productivity.

Farmers already suffering from last year’s drought can still expect to face climate extremes over a large area of the US. And with La Nina increasing risks that drought will re-expand, it appears the beginning of a long era of damage to crops and increased risk of severe fire via the ratcheting effects of climate change is now starting to settle over the US.

Today’s US Drought Monitor tells that tale all too well:

dm_us_w525_h391.png

(Image source: US Drought Monitor)

Persistent Arctic Cyclone Enters 4th Week

Moving northward into colder climes we enter the epicenter of another ongoing tale of climate change tragedy. In this case, a Persistent Arctic Cyclone which has continued to batter and thin the northern polar sea ice has now entered its fourth week.

The storm is now a 985 mb low centered between Svalbard and the North Pole. Two smaller storms are now also incorporated into its larger circulation and are indicated by the two light blue circles on the map:

Persistent Arctic Cyclone Enters 4th Week

Persistent Arctic Cyclone Enters 4th Week

(Image source: DMI)

The storm continues to pull warmer air into the Central Arctic from the south. Now, much of the Arctic Basin is experiencing above freezing temperatures. Yesterday, Barrow Alaska, one of the coldest cities in the Northern Hemisphere, experienced a 65 degree high, about 26 degrees above average for this time of year.

The below weather map shows temperatures above the freezing point of sea water (-1.9 C) covering all but a few isolated locations. In one location on the coast of Siberia and bordering the Arctic Ocean, the temperature has risen to a balmy 27 degrees Celsius or about 81 degrees Fahrenheit.

synNNWWarctisJune14

(Image source: Uni-Koeln)

Forecasts for the storm have tended to trend for it remaining in the Central Arctic at least until late next week. If these forecasts bear out, by next Friday we’ll begin talking about the month-long storm.

With the storm continuing for so long, it is forecast to really begin digging deep into the Arctic sea ice by next week. US Navy models continue to show major thinning in a broad swath from the Laptev Sea to the North Pole and creeping on toward Svalbard. Such projections show continued, dramatic and rapid thinning ramping up all the way through June 21rst. At this point, PAC 2013 begins to look more like the nightmare scenario I discussed in The Warm Storm blog and less like the strong thinning event we’ve witnessed thus far.

The Warm Storm Begins?

The Warm Storm Begins?

(Image source: US Navy)

It is worth stating that we’ve never before witnessed a Persistent Arctic Cyclone thin the ice to any note-worthy extent during June. This particular storm is already unprecedented in its impacts and the fact that it continues and is projected to continue for at least the next ten days should be major cause for concern.

Simply put, the Arctic sea ice is in ongoing and deepening peril. Should these amazing thinning and melt values the Navy is predicting emerge next week, we’ll have to modify our ‘Ice Free Arctic’ prediction (currently at 10% for 2013) accordingly.

Meanwhile, a related warming and melt is now occurring in Greenland, may be set to challenge an extreme record 120 year melt seen just last year.

Greenland Melt Starting to Go Bonkers

Earlier this week, Greenland melt surpassed maximum summer melt values usually seen in mid-to-late July. Today, these melt totals proceeded to spike without hardly a pause.

Average maximum melt area for Greenland usually peaks at around 23% during mid-summer. By Friday, June 14th, about 27% of the Greenland ice sheet experienced melt. You can see this rapid and ongoing spike in Greenland melt in the graphic below:

greenland_melt_area_plotJun14

(Image source: NSIDC)

Current melt coverage is still below last year’s record of near 100%. However, those values didn’t emerge until July and current melt is proceeding at a rapid enough pace to raise concerns that the 2012 record could be challenged this year.

Greenland melt is a major driver of extreme weather events. Melt has currently reached an average of 500 gigatons from the Greenland ice sheet annually. This level is already three times that observed in the 1990s. But melt rates are still rising over time. This massive and growing volume of melt water has already slowed the Gulf Stream and is likely playing a role in severe winters and springs in Europe.

Combined with sea ice erosion, which Dr. Jennifer Francis has implicated in a slowing of the Northern Hemisphere Jet Stream, Greenland melt is a powerful driver of the extreme weather we expect to see as climate continues to change.

Of these four events, three — the Colorado fires, PAC 2013, and amplified Greenland melt — can be directly attributed to a warming climate. The derecho, on the other hand, was likely made worse by a combination of alterations to the global jet stream, increased atmospheric heating, and increased water vapor pumping up the thunderstorms it spawned. Together they provide a context of climate change. One we are just starting to see emerge and one that will likely grow far worse should we not rapidly reduce our use of fossil fuels.

Links:

Hurricane over Land

Weather Underground

National Weather Service

US Department of Agriculture Fire Study

US Drought Monitor

DMI

Uni-Koeln

US Navy

NSIDC

Arctic Ice Graphs

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