The historic, out-of-control Fort McMurray wildfire in Alberta, Canada wiped out cities and forced the evacuation of thousands of people. Given today’s advanced firefighting technology, modern-day wildfires are much smaller than historic burners of the past, but with changing weather and environmental conditions resulting from global warming, experts say the fires burn much hotter and spread much quicker than fires of the past. In fact, Canada’s 2016 wildfire is so intense, it is furthering its advance by generating its own weather system. Compounding fears, experts now believe dire effects from the extraordinary fire may extend far beyond Canada and Alaska.
The 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire is so intense, it generates its own lightning inside a self-contained weather system
Experts say the fire is burning so hot, “fire clouds” are forming which not only generate lightning, but create their own weather system which further enhances the already-intense heat from the fire. Fire clouds, which can also form after massive explosions or volcanic eruptions, are created when intense heat induces convection, which causes the air mass to rise rapidly. The huge volume of rising smoke and intense heat from the fire cause storm clouds to form. These clouds are typically bigger, taller and darker than normal thunderstorm clouds.
Oddly, the turbulence in the atmosphere created by fire clouds causes lightning strikes, but no rain. Furthermore, the fired-induced weather system seems to tether itself in place and rarely drifts far from its source. In essence, the weather system it generates becomes its own self-destructive force.
Global warming is creating “hell on Earth” conditions
The fire in Fort McMurray now covers 85,000 hectares, about 10 times the size of Manhattan and about the size of Hong Kong. The smoke plume is visible from space, and experts say the fire will likely double, or triple, in size. While the fire spread through the area, roads were lined with vehicles as residents fled the blaze. When citizens couldn’t escape quickly enough, Canadian government officials formed organized convoys, including military vehicles and aerial support, to assist with the evacuation.
One evacuee told CNN that the past few days have been like “Hell on Earth. Just like hell.” Another recounted:
“It was something like Armageddon. Everything was burnt, houses gone. Leaving the city, it was like a scene out of a movie. It reminded me of the TV show ‘The Walking Dead’ where you’re going on the highway, and there’s just abandoned vehicles everywhere; hundreds of cars, just abandoned vehicles.”
Peter Murphy, a retired professor of forest fire management at the University of Alberta, says global warming and the extreme drying of the Earth is creating abnormally intense fires that firefighters are unaccustomed to battling:
“We’re facing increasingly intense fires. They burn hotter, move faster and take more space.”
Experts believe that within 50 years, the planet will see 2-4 times as much fire as we see today. According to one expert:
“We’re chasing a moving target … we’re ready for fires of the past, but we don’t seem to be ready for the fires of the future.”
Could Canada’s fires impact the rest of the world?
Because frozen organic matter under the forest permafrost is released as a result of the fires, effects from the Fort McMurray fires may extend far beyond Canada and Alaska. Wildfires can strip away the protective vegetative blanket and release stockpiled carbon into the atmosphere. According to Merritt Turetsky, an ecosystem ecologist at the University of Guelph in Ontario:
“This is carbon that the ecosystem has not seen for thousands of years and now it’s being released into the atmosphere. We need to start thinking about permafrost and we need to start thinking about deep carbon.”
The thawing soil could also trigger microbial activity, releasing more carbon dioxide and methane. In other words, more wildfires can mean more greenhouse gases, accelerating the very climate change that helped kick off the fires in the first place — not to mention changing the equation for rest of the globe.
Check out stunning pictures of the Canada’s 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire in the pictorial gallery below.