17 times the size of Manhattan

Eric Holthaus at Slate points out that the Fort McMurray fire is just the time to talk about climate change. It’s not as if it’s peripheral, after all.

Friday marks the fourth day of an intense firestorm in Canada’s boreal forest that has engulfed large parts of Fort McMurray, Alberta—a frontier town that serves as the base for the province’s oil sands region. Already, the fires rank as Canada’s costliest natural disaster on record, and the town’s entire population of more than 80,000 people has been evacuated. The area burned, about 250,000 acres, is now 17 times the size of the island of Manhattan. And conditions could still get worse. “The beast is still up. It’s surrounding the city,” said fire chief Darby Allen in a video update Thursday night.

That no one has yet died in the fire is a miracle, if you believe in such things. Photos of the fire from space on Wednesday resembled an explosion.

Photo published for Viewed from space, the Fort McMurray wildfire looks like an explosion

On Wednesday afternoon, the fire began to create its own weather conditions, with lightning from pyrocumulus clouds likely further fueling the fire’s growth. On Wednesday evening, one of the main evacuation centers itself had to be evacuated, as the fire spread out of control. On Thursday, the fire grew in size more than eightfold, after more than quadrupling in size the previous day.

And, not surprisingly, it isn’t just a random uncaused miraculous event.

I want to be clear: Talking about climate change during an ongoing disaster like Fort McMurray is absolutely necessary. There is a sensitive way to do it, one that acknowledges what the victims are going through and does not blame them for these difficulties. But adding scientific context helps inform our response and helps us figure out how something so horrific could have happened.

Because climate change isn’t “by the end of the 21st century” any more. It’s here. We’re in it.

Though uncertainty still reigns among those working to put out the fire in Fort McMurray, there are certain facts that we do know: Experts have warned for years that Alberta’s forests are being primed for “catastrophic fires.” We know that. In the boreal forest, once the winter snowpack melts, the exposed dry brush serves as perfect kindling—which is why this time of year marks the start of fire season. We know that. Record warm temperatures, a vanishingly small snowpack, and drought conditions—all of which are symptoms of climate change in boreal Canada—very probably made this fire worse. “This [fire] is consistent with what we expect from human-caused climate change affecting our fire regime,” said Mike Flannigan from the University of Alberta.

We need to talk.

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