Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Future climate - Alberta jumps the gun?

 abbreviations used:

CC - climate change
GW - global warming
GHG - greenhouse gas

            Fort McMurray, Alberta is burning. An El Nino warmed winter with little snow brought springtime record temperature and drought. The boreal forest was dry as tinder, relative humidity below 15%, dry like a bone. A chance spark or lightning stroke ignited the conflagration..

                           pyrocumulus - fire bred storm cloud - Fort McMurray

                 With some 88,000 souls evacuated, the Fort McMurray fire beats all Canadian disasters to date. To grasp the size of the disaster: Alberta has about 4.1 million people. To date the fire has thus displaced one person in 46. If this is indeed a taste of future climatic conditions in the Oil Patch, Albertans should start worrying..,-111.4404521,2165198a,20y,18.49t/data=!3m1!1e3   

                Many of the displaced were relocated to the provincial capital, Edmonton, far to the south. Given the treacherous turning of the wind, the "velocity" of the fire (due to a bone dry forest) and the large number of people who evacuated it is a miracle that only two people lost their lives (to date) in the evacuations. This big fire - and there are two other wildfires burning in Alberta - could burn for "weeks". "The Beast", as it is named, is so big and so intense that firefighters speak only of "steering" it to places where it will do less damage. It is not possible at this stage, they say, to think of extinguishing it or even to control it, just exert enough control around the edges to minimize the damage.  

"The last damage assessment estimated 1,600 structures, mostly homes, burned in the south and southwest areas of the city, 435 kilometres northeast of Edmonton.
But officials have said that, even though the fire has largely pushed through Fort McMurray, the town is still too dangerous to enter. The city’s gas has been turned off, its power grid is damaged, and the water is undrinkable. Provincial officials said displaced people would be better off driving to cities such as Calgary, where health and social services were better.
One analyst from the Bank of Montreal estimated insurance losses could exceed $9-billion."

           The video associated with the above link is impressive. Some neighborhoods have been razed, only foundation holes remain. Fortunately the tarsand oil extraction and refining operations in the region remain intact. Some people might like to see them burn but I am thinking of the carcinogenic pollutants and their impact on human and wildlife..

           Economists figure that the Canadian economy will take a "temporary" negative point five percent hit in GDP. Insurance losses of $9 billion on a population base of 4 million means per capita insured losses of $2,250. And then there's the folks without insurance, the businesses that go belly up, the post-traumatic syndrome related health and "societal" costs (suicides, broken families, the kids that did not get to go to college because dad's head got messed up by the fire and his subsequent business bankruptcy..) Probably most of the costs are hard, if not impossible, to quantify. What about the costs to the boreal forest ecosystem, already under stress from global warming (GW) and climate change (CC)?  In the more exotic scenarios, a hotter summer fire regime might actually "tip" the stressed boreal forest into a new ecosystemic mode of functioning. Boreal forest may be replaced by grassland, possibly even more fire prone (and quite likely a source of greenhouse gases (GHG) as soils degrade releasing trapped organic carbon). All of us are playing with fire by continuing to burn fossil fuels at the rate we are. Ironically, Alberta produces some of the dirtiest oil on the planet (several times the GHG production per barrel (bbl) as conventional oil). Thus Alberta makes an excessive "contribution" to the type of climate change event now playing out in Fort McMurray. Karmic payback time? 

           This is one of 44 articles listed under the keyword: climate change. When I wrote this article three years ago, Alberta was suffering "never before seen" floods. Now, it's fire. GW / CC increase the risk of extreme weather events, which, it turns out, is much more dangerous than a small annual increase in mean temperature. Extreme weather can flatten crops, provoke famine, epidemic (malnutrition induced immunosuppression) and war. It has played a contributory role in triggering major political events: the French Revolution, Times of Troubles in medieval China, migrations and cultural shifts in the pre-Columbian Americas..

           As this article goes to press, Fort McMurray has received a stay of execution. Thanks to incredibly brave and dedicated firefighters about 90% of the city has been saved from immediate destruction. Cooler weather and light rain helped.           

            It is estimated that oil exports out of province are down by about a million barrels (bbl) per day, a great loss when added to those already suffered by a stagnating tarsands extraction industry. Recent increases in shale oil production south of the border have dropped oil prices to $45 / bbl (down from $100 plus). Since Albertan tarsand oil is costly to extract and refine, $70 - 80 /bbl is the breakeven price. So even before the fire, the Oil Patch was bleeding money, and now, with reduced output, revenues are even lower.

             It is easy to read a morality tale into the Fort McMurray fire: a tale of hubris, delusions of grandeur, the overconfidence and "inflation" of technological society. Since Fort McMurray is situated in a boreal forest burn zone, why were buildings not constructed of less flammable materials? Wind borne glowing embers were a major source of ignition as were "brands" - burning chunks of wood lifted by heat fed updrafts. Why was the city - and it is not alone among northern Albertan oil towns - constructed with only one entrance / exit road? Is that not asking for trouble in a catastrophe like this? Many people were trapped in a traffic jam leaving the city with fire burning on both sides of the road, mere feet away. It is a miracle that no one panicked and even more of a miracle that only two died during evactuation! 

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