Image: NASA. Shot from space of the wildfires.
It's been more than twenty years since the Northwest Territories, one of Canada’s northernmost remote jurisdictions comprising parts of the North Pole, experienced extreme drought conditions of the magnitude it's currently enduring. That extreme drought has fueled wildfires now affecting much of the NWT, a territory almost twice the size of Texas.
So much smoke is being produced by the burning forests of the boreal region that the jet stream is carrying it to parts of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and even as far as North and South Dakota.
One look at an image outlining the extent of the damage and you get a feel for the biblical size and scope of the inferno burning across the territory.
A screenshot of the live fire map on NWTfire.com
A redditor from NWT put it best when he or she posted a similar image of the fires with the caption, “I live in Canada’s Northwest Territories and we are on fire (literally).”
Officials told the CBC some of the fires—at least 13—started because of human causes, such as people tossing cigarette butts or campers setting campfires in places where there were fire bans. In addition, the continuous burning is no doubt due to lightning striking the hot and dry forests of the NWT, which has been desperate for rain since the spring melt.
There's another factor at play, as well: the climate. Record droughts in the NWT will become more common as the region warms. In a 2008 government report on climate change, researchers outlined the several observable changes to the vast forests of the territory.
“Warmer weather, along with changes in precipitation and evaporation, is increasing the risk of forest fires in some parts of the boreal forest,” said the report, adding that while some areas will burn more often, others will receive higher levels of rainfall.
The same report said “drying of vegetation” thanks to “longer warm periods" would lead to "the risk of tundra fires.” As summer approaches, wildfires in forested areas all over Canada are par for the course. Last summer fires raged across northern Quebec, with smoke billowing far enough that I could smell and see burning tree smoke from my apartment patio in Ottawa, the nation's capital, where parliament convenes.
The Canadian government has been careful not to blame increasing forest fires solely on climate change. In an online report by Natural Resources Canada on climate change and fire, the department cites things likes "changes in land use, vegetation composition, firefighting (meaning suppression) efforts" and something they call "climate variability" as factors influencing wildfires. According to the report, in the last half of the 20th century forest fires have steadily increased in the northern regions of Canada, while those in southern regions have decreased.
Even so, the Canadian government predicts climate change in the twenty-first century will most certainly bring frequent fires in many boreal forests, bringing with it environmental and economic consequences to boot.
"Fire-prone conditions are predicted to increase across Canada. This could potentially result in a doubling of the amount of area burned by the end of this century, compared with amounts burned in recent decades. Boreal forests, which have been greatly influenced by fire through history, will likely be especially affected by this change," it said.
For now, there's hope in the NWT the fires will be dampened if forecasts for rain and cool temperature for some of the afflicted regions ring true. But if government climate change projections are accurate, Canada's vast woodlands can expect the fires to return more often.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified a government of Canada report by "Environment Canada." The report is from Natural Resources Canada another Canadian government department.