Will Canada ever return to its previous state after experiencing a record-breaking year of wildfires?
Canada’s eventful year of wildfires seems to be coming to an end, leaving behind a significant impact of burned forests, unpleasant smoke, and a substantial release of carbon that will have consequences for the global climate.
In 2023, Canada experienced an unprecedented level of destruction from wildfires. A staggering 45.7 million acres (18.5 million hectares) were burned, which is approximately double the size of Portugal and nearly three times the previous record for a single year. Starting in the spring, over 6,500 fires erupted throughout the entire country, reaching from Nova Scotia in the east to British Columbia in the west.
The majority of the fires occurred in Canada’s extensive boreal forests, which are home to various animals, including moose, bears, and songbirds. These forests also serve as a vital carbon storage, covering an area larger than India and accounting for approximately 25% of the world’s remaining untouched forests.
Many of the fires occurred in distant locations, but two firefighters died in July and many people had to evacuate. The most notable evacuation was in August when 20,000 residents of Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, had to leave their homes as multiple fires approached the city.
Fire has always been a feature of Canada’s forests but experts say this year was not only a staggering departure from previous norms but also a grave omen of the sort of conditions that will be wreaked by the climate crisis, which is helping spur larger, fiercer wildfires through elevated temperatures and altered rainfall patterns.
Stephen Pyne, a fire historian at Arizona State University, described this year as extraordinary and monumental. He stated that we are witnessing a transformation from mythology to ecology, comparable to a gradual Ragnarök. While the Earth has experienced ice ages before, we are currently living through what Pyne calls the “pyrocene” – a period where fire plays a dominant role instead of ice.
“This situation is a direct result of the effects of climate change, which is intensifying the fluctuations in the boreal forest. It is possible that we are observing a shift in the condition and nature of this ecosystem.”
This year, over 100 fires in Canada have been extremely intense, causing pyrocumulonimbus clouds to form. These “fire storm clouds” can cover up to 200 miles (320km) and carry ash and other materials upwards, potentially causing lightning strikes that start even more fires and destroy additional trees.
The extreme severity of these fires raises uncertainty about the return of the prevalent fir and spruce trees in the boreal forest – the regrowth may consist of a distinct, more easily combustible combination of plants.
According to Pyne, the current environment is shifting from being suitable for ice to one that favors fire. He believes that the presence of these intense fires and their destructive effects will bring about significant transformations.
The effects of the wildfires extended beyond Canada, resulting in smoke that turned the skies over New York City an eerie orange in June and more recently causing hazy conditions as far as Florida. Residents of cities in eastern Canada and the north-eastern US had to wear masks, despite discarding them during the pandemic, due to the poor air quality. This also led to an increase in hospitalizations for respiratory conditions such as asthma.
The effect on global climate will be greater than previously thought. Based on information from the European Union’s satellite surveillance system, the massive fires have released over 1.7 billion tons of greenhouse gases this year, which is about three times the annual emissions of Canada, a leading producer of fossil fuels.
The vast amounts of emissions, surpassing any attempts to reduce pollution from vehicles or factories by a nation like Canada in just one year, are hindering progress in addressing the climate emergency. The magnificent boreal forests, similar to the Amazon rainforest which is now emitting as much carbon as it absorbs and is on the brink of becoming a grassland, are now seen as a threat to the global climate rather than a crucial protector.
According to Pyne, in the past, individuals would only witness locations burning on the news. However, now they are personally experiencing the effects through smoke in their own communities. This has caused a shift in concern, as even fires in remote areas like northern Quebec are now affecting densely populated cities and forcing people to take notice. The situation has become more tangible for them.
“The forest is no longer our ally,” he stated. “It was meant to be a natural reserve, a place where we could store carbon, but now it’s unstable. There’s a rush to withdraw from this ‘bank.’ It’s at risk of burning, along with the peat beneath the surface that also holds a significant amount of carbon. This could potentially be a ticking time bomb for our carbon emissions.”
Canada faces the difficult task of preserving its vast forests in the midst of a rapidly changing climate. The country is home to approximately 10% of the world’s forests, and over the past 40 years, about one-third of this land has been destroyed by wildfires. Even during the winter season when temperatures drop and snow covers the ground, some of these fires will continue to burn underground as “zombie” fires, potentially resurfacing again in the following year.
Fire is now a near-constant. This year’s extremes have severely taxed firefighters, pushed to the brink of exhaustion battling flames in areas that had to be protected while other, more remote, fires were left to burn, spewing out carbon.
Mélanie Morin, a representative from Sopfeu, a firefighting group in Quebec, stated that this year has been incredibly unique. The organization broke its previous record for the amount of land burned in a year. The summer in Quebec was characterized by a series of lightning strikes in June, which sparked numerous fires. Firefighters, including some volunteers from France and South Korea, worked hard to control the blazes.
Morin stated that all individuals put in a lot of effort over the summer, resulting in exhaustion from working consecutive shifts. He acknowledged that this fatigue is now impacting people’s mental well-being.
“This was a novel experience for eastern Canada. There is now a heightened awareness of the presence of fires in this region. The images of smoke in New York City were alarming, but they are a direct result of an unusually high number of fires.”