Friday, May 6, 2016

Fort McMurray Wildfire and Climate Change

... another example of the uneasy interface between policy politics and science.


CTV in Calgary has what appears to be the grabbiest headline as well as some sobering numbers:
Wildfire near Fort McMurray grows to over 100,000 hectares


Thousands of people who became trapped after fleeing the fires in and around Fort McMurray earlier this week are being moved out of the area to safety by RCMP and air transport.

An evacuation order was issued for Fort McMurray and surrounding communities earlier this week and more than 80,000 people left the area.

About 25,000 evacuees headed north to oilsands camps and some became stranded after several roads in the area were closed. Approximately 7000 were air lifted out on Thursday by WestJet and other carriers.
Converting hectares to more familiar units, we get 386 square miles.  For comparison, the US State of Rhode Island weighs in at 1,212 square miles, so this fire has burnt an area equal to nearly 1/3 the size.  Including the endzones, that works out to 186,824 American Football fields.  I don't think I need to convert to Olympic-sized swimming pools; you get the point.

There have been larger wildfires; the main issue with this one is that it's threatening a sizable population center, prompting a large evacuation requiring airlifts due to road closures.

Well that, and the inevitable controversy when climate scientists go on record in the mainstream press saying climate change is a factor.

What the Scientists are Saying

I'll use local Canadian news sources again for some money quotes.  Here's one from MacLeans using the tried-and-true method of question-as-headline, Did climate change contribute to the Fort McMurray fire?
[...] Marc-André Parisien, a research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service in Edmonton, says Alberta can expect even more intense fires in the coming years.

“We know from looking at weather records from the last 100 years that the fire season is lengthening, and intense fires like this are increasingly common,” says Parisien.

Parisien says last year’s drought (so extreme the Alberta government officially classified it as a disaster) and El Niño conditions, which caused much of Canada to experience a mild winter, made the vegetation and soil extremely dry—and therefore prime fuel for fire.


Mike Flannigan, a professor at the University of Alberta and the director of the Western Partnership for Wildland Fire Science, is a leading expert on forest fires. “The area burned in Canada has increased over the past 40 to 50 years. This is due to human-caused climate change,” says Flannigan.


Flannigan says that rising temperatures in Canada lead to drying soil and vegetation, increased lightning strikes, and longer fire seasons. After the 2011 Slave Lake area wildfires, Alberta pushed the beginning of fire season from April 1 to March 1.

A 2014 study published in Science found that climate change led to an increase in lightning strikes—one of the common ways wildfires get started.

Stephen Johnston, chair of the earth and atmospheric sciences department at the University of Alberta, echoes Flannigan’s concerns. “Climate change makes extreme weather events more common. From that perspective, you could say this is more of the extreme types of weather that you’d expect.”

A 2013 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that boreal forests—the type of forest currently burning in Fort McMurray—haven’t burned so frequently in at least 10,000 years.

In Canada, there’s also evidence that more forest is burning than ever before. A January 2016 study in Climatic Change co-authored by Flannigan, said that 8,000 fires burned over two million hectares on average per year, over the past decade. According to Flannigan, previous decades saw an average of about one million hectares burn per year.
Links in the original.  This is good reporting, beginning with the appropriate qualifier in the headline that climate change is a contributing factor in the McMurray fire, not the (sole) cause of it.  It gives historical context, discusses frequency of occurrence and duration of the fire season, invokes mechanisms driving both changes, and cites peer-reviewed primary literature.

What's not to love?

Political Pushback

From the same article:
While the experts agree, politicians do not. When Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said the Fort McMurray fire is likely a symptom of climate change, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said linking any specific natural disasters to climate change is not helpful—and it’s better to map whether the frequency and intensity of disasters is increasing.
Eric Holthaus over at Slate puts a finer point on it, links in original:
Many people have expressed outrage at the fact that climate change is being mentioned as a contributing cause to this fire. It is “insensitive” to the victims to bring up something so political at a time like this, they argue.

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.
Ok, so there's some weaseling going on with the bit about "many people", but he does give a citation to a blog article with some examples.  I'm not so enamored of the link to Twitter, but that's just because I have early-onset cranky old guy syndrome.  [Update 5/6/2016 6:00 PM: in my haste, I missed it that the blog entry Holhaus cites IS a protest, not just some examples of them.]

I have my own anecdotes of what I not so respectfully think of as faux moral outrage over how (C)AGW/CC is being used to "scare people" for purely political ends.  This recent exchange from Lucia Liljegren's blog, The Blackboard is not atypical in my experience:
Andrew_KY (Comment #146029)
April 18th, 2016 at 7:43 am

“[James Hansen] is, in fact, my hero on that one.”

Brandon G,

I know you are using the term loosely, but dude has done nothing heroic. Unless you think trying to scare a lot of people is heroic (you may, if you are an end justifies the means kind of guy).


Brandon R. Gates (Comment #146043)
April 18th, 2016 at 1:21 pm

At least you recognize I used the term “hero” loosely. Granted, firefighters, police and members of the military are arguable heroic simply by virtue of putting their lives on the line (and often losing them or being very badly injured). Hansen has done more science in his life than I ever have or will, for that alone he has my deepest respect.

We’ve talked about this scary stuff before. If your threshold for saying something scary is simply pointing out a credible potential threat in the future which is avoidable if we act now to prevent it then I am guilty as charged of being a fear-monger. In the hypothetical case of that being a capital offense, I would hang by my neck in good conscience, wishing my executioners the very best of luck until I expire. You’re just not going to be able to shame me with this “ends justifies the means” crap — the potential consequences justify a stern, if not often strident, warning.
An irony here is that I explicitly stated Dr. Hansen is my hero for the open letter he penned with several colleagues in 2013 on fission power being a significant and essential component of the variety of solutions proposed to reduce emissions.  To that point, practically everyone else in that thread had been amenable to discussing nukes with me.  However, Andrew_KY is somewhat of an outlier in that forum, and apparently simply mentioning the name of the Arch-WarmistAlarmist himself is a trigger.

I microaggressed him, and for that I'm an ends justifies the means kind of guy.

Herein Lies the Problem

Ideally, the ushers in a crowded theater would quietly evacuate the patrons row by row to the nearest exit at the first sign of smoke.  However, herds are not easily induced to move with organized purpose when alacrity is called for.  And the sad fact of the matter is that a major portion of the US population doesn't see the same urgency I do:

Figure 1 - a climate contrarian favorite; even amongst Americans concerned about the environment, we say "meh" to (C)AGW/CC.  Source: Gallup.

Other similar polls including other issues such as terrorism, jobs, the general economy, etc., show human-driven climate change toward the bottom of primary immediate concerns.  It's worth pointing out that this is not because a minority of the US population disregards AGW as politically-motivated pseudo-science banking on Al Gore's documentary:

Figure 2 - The US "Consensus Gap" is closing.  Source: Gallup.

Even though I'm not the biggest fan of Cook et al. (2013), it's arguable that consensus messaging of that sort is working. [1]  A good number of folks appear to be familiar with some aspects of climate science itself:

Figure 3 - 90% of US citizens polled believe that AGW is already upon us, or will happen in their lifetime.  Source: Gallup.

Here's a lesson in being able to get desired answers when one asks arguably leading questions: this is what happens when Americans are asked about AGW concerns in isolation of other issues:

Figure 4 - When asked in isolation about their concerns, Americans who worry about it a great deal or fair amount somewhat tracks over time with the belief AGW is already happening.  Source: Gallup.

64% is nothing to sneeze at.  But as we see from Figure 1 above, it is potentially misleading in the context of our nation's collective priorities.

The Psychology of Urgency and the Politics of Fear

The problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly [Saddam Hussein] can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.

~Condie, stumping for what is now known to have been dubious intelligence in response to cross-examination by Wolf Blitzer
It's worth noting that the Neocons aren't the only one who know how to run that game (emphasis added post hoc):
I have an even more logical, reliable version of your risk protocol. It is 100% accurate and precise, costs nothing up front, and nobody can question its assumptions, bias or validity. Best part of all, it has one and only one step: let the risks be realized.

At the opposite far less absurd extreme; probability of today’s climate being non-catastrophic: 1.

~me, getting testy with a luckwarmer attempt to appear more reasonable and rational about Uncertainty Monsters
I was subsequently told that I wouldn't get anywhere being "obnoxious" and that I'd do well to continue campaigning for nuclear if I hoped to get anywhere.  But even amongst folk who aren't doing everything within their power to estimate ECS < 3 K/2xCO2 by using "unbiased" Bayesian priors [2].

Why?  The answer is hardly novel or surprising, we're smelling the smoke and can even see it at times, but it blends in with the background noise.  "Look, this is nothing unusual," is a mantra at WUWT.  Yep, any single x weather phenomenon or related natural disaster -- or even human-caused disaster -- is not without precedent in our cultural memory, if not non-anecdotal quantified history.

Shit happens, in other words.  From a full 230 typeset pages of the psychology behind our mostly token efforts to mitigate the present and future risks and impacts of AGW, a far more learned and less colorfully colloquial view (pp. 33-34, 36):
Climate is a statistical and thus technical concept and is described by the distributions of such variables as temperature and precipitation in a region, collected over time.  The average person is rarely concerned about the climate in her region, but thinks a lot about the weather.  However, climate information is sometimes used for planning and decision making, as for example, when a farmer decides which crop variety to plant or a student considers average March temperatures in different regions of the world to determine where to go for spring break.

While a region’s climate and changes in its climate obviously determine its weather patterns, weather events—even extreme ones—are not necessarily diagnostic of changes in the climate.  Climate change is a trend in averages and extremes of temperature, precipitation, and other parameters that are embedded in a lot of variability, making it very difficult to identify from personal experiencePeople often falsely attribute unique events to climate change and also fail to detect changes in climate.


Because climate change is so hard to detect from personal experience, it makes sense to leave this task to climate scientists.  This makes climate change a phenomenon where people have to rely on scientific models and expert judgment, and/or on reports in the mass media, and where their own personal experience does not provide a trustworthy way to confirm the reports.  For most people, their exposure to and experience of “climate change” has been almost entirely indirect and virtual, mediated by news coverage and film documentaries of events in distant regions (such as melting glaciers in Greenland) that describe these events in relation to climate change.


For most people in the United States, perceptions of the risks of climate change that rely on personal experience will lead to the judgment that the risks are low.  The likelihood of seriously and noticeably adverse events as the result global warming is bound to be small for the foreseeable future for many regions of the world.  Even individuals whose economic livelihood depends on weather and climate events (e.g., farmers or fishers) might not receive sufficient feedback from their daily or yearly personal experience to be alarmed about global warming, though recent surveys conducted in Alaska and Florida (two states in which residents in some regions have increasingly been experiencing climate-change driven changes personally) show that such exposure greatly increases their concern and willingness to take action (Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, 2004; Leiserowitz & Broad, 2008).  Climate scientists have experience-based reactions to the risks of climate change.  However, by virtue of their education and training, they can also be expected to place greater reliance than members of the general population on their analytical processing system, and their consideration of statistical descriptions and model outputs will thus make them more likely to consider global climate change to be a more serious risk than typical nonscientists.
AGW is just not a viscerally threatening phenomenon.  It's abstract and subtle.  It's taken on the order of a third of my 46 years for it to become unambiguously apparent in instrumental data.  I myself find myself asking whether it's really that big a deal.  Sea level rise is a few millimeters a year, we can adapt to that, right?

Sure, at great expense -- but only in some places, only where there is wealth enough to do it, which wealth will likely be diminished simply by virtue of enough of smart money heading for the theater exits when there's NO doubt whatsoever the thing is on fire.  When real-estate bubbles pop, they do a lot of damage all on their own.

So of course my message sounds "alarmist" to some ears -- I sound like Chicken Little to myself at times.  That's because I'm not out in the field watching the WAIS break up in front of my own eyes.  I don't have the decades of personal fieldwork or coursework experience to believe at a gut-level in combination with trained expertise that something unprecedented in modern history is happening, or that it's ominous.

As ever, my argument rests on the notion that it's almost always more rational to trust what the majority of domain experts are saying in primary literature.  Then listen to what they have to say in mainstream press -- that's where one can best at least hope to feel their personal dread.

We should listen to it, and try to best understand from whence it springs.

Summary and Conclusions

  1. It can be difficult to determine the combined factors contributing to a single disastrous event like the McMurray fire, and especially difficult to attribute the portion due to (C)AGW/CC.
  2. A single event is NEVER solely attributable to climate change.  A more proper perspective is that the frequency, duration, and severity of weather events, or weather-sensitive events, are expected to increase globally as the planet continues to retain ever more solar energy.
  3. There is no way to not yell FIRE in the crowded theater of our planet ... at least not in the eyes and ears of ideologically-motivated doubters and disbelievers.  No matter how "reasonable" the "tone", some ears are just going to interpret irrational panic.
  4. It's fully appropriate to "use" disasters to give context to the threats we're facing.  Mind the above points and you're ok in my book.
  5. Sounding an alarm is not "alarmism".  Again, see the above points -- it's not enough in my book to simply say one smells smoke.  Much better to point out where it is, and in context with the past.  Only then does describing what it may portend for the future make any sense and/or have credibility.


[1] Dan Kahan disagrees.  His blog contains other articles where he more strongly argues the point.

[2] Nic Lewis shows how it's done when he's free of the editorial constraints of peer-reviewed literature.


  1. This is a high profile case of a now familiar trend: the popular media question about whether we can expect more of these conflagrations as a "the new normal" for a warmer planet. Scientists naturally get squicked by that question because they live in a world where any statement can and will be debated by professional arguers. But clearly we do have a situation where water distribution has been altered. And you can't alter the distribution of water without altering the course of wild fires, certainly at the margins.

    1. Jack,

      Scientists naturally get squicked by that question because they live in a world where any statement can and will be debated by professional arguers.

      Indeed. As I allude above, the data are noisy with healthy uncertainties. Thus it takes long periods of time -- on the order of several decades -- for statistically significant trends to emerge from the combined variability/error estimate envelope.

      The professional arguers (I like the term) are indeed fond of cherry-picking data and saying, "Look, no trend! Theory falsified!"

      But clearly we do have a situation where water distribution has been altered.

      I meant to point out in the article that the strong El Nino has had a particularly acute drying effect in the region. Thus it is tempting to chalk this up as a weather-driven event unrelated to longer-term climatic change. That would be a too-hasty conclusion as long-term change would be reasonably expected to also have a drying effect in "wetter" years.

      IOW, future overall warming could be expected to further exacerbate what otherwise already would have been a higher-risk, drier year due to "weather" alone.

      In short, extremes tend to also follow the trend. This concept is professionally "misunderstood" by professional arguers on a disconcertingly frequent basis.