The Profile of Environmental Collapse – Forest Fires tell the story

Human history is rarely dull but we are living through a period in which pivotal change is taking place. We have abused the planet to such an extent that the environmental ground under our feet is starting to shift.

Human civilization was built during the current 12,000 year period of freakishly benign climate (the Goldilocks Zone*). But thanks to our stripping of resources, paving over of forests and farmland and emissions of carbon into the atmosphere, we are changing our environment at every level.

At the climate level, we are exiting the +/- 0.75 degree Celsius range of average global temperature and wandering back into the dynamics of past climate which saw variations in the +/- 5C range. Human civilization at any scale cannot exist in that environment. We almost went extinct during that past regime.

Welcome to the world of “unprecedented” events. Of course, all of the events we are witnessing now and labelling “extreme” have occurred before. But they occurred before we could write or perhaps even before we existed as humans. What matters is that all of the human infrastructure we have built, from agriculture to cities to transportation to energy systems, we built during a period that had few extreme events and when resources were in their virgin state i.e. their most abundant and productive state.

Earth’s resources are no longer as abundant or productive as they were even 100 years ago (see EROI Mountain**). We have crashed many resources and here is what that looks like in the case of Canada’s cod fishery.

The trendline of growing harvests shows increasing variation and near the end, the oscillations become extreme with the resource finally collapsing.

Below is the graph of the area destroyed in Canadian forest fires over the past 5 decades. Notice any trends?

2023 was memorable because it is off the charts in our societal memory. No one can remember a year this bad and there is no documentation to suggest there was ever a worse year. Of course, over the past thousands of years, much greater areas of the country could have been burned but there was no one in a position to calculate or record those instances.

2023 area burned = 14,600,643 hectares or 4% of Canada’s total forest area in one year. The total area of the Maritimes, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, PEI = 13,044,800 ha. With a resource replenishment rate of 50 to 100 years or more, (possibly 1000 years in Canada for full succession dynamics to play out) a loss of 4% is alarming.

If 4% events occurred once every 40 years, Canada would eventually become a country of grassy or rocky plains. The fire cycle is natural but where conditions allow, plains will displace forests as they have in the Prairies. New climate regimes mean new biophysical landscapes. These are unlikely to be as human civilization friendly as the ones we have now.

Forest Fire Emissions in Canada 2023

In the graph below, the emissions from the big and bad oil sands (100 – 130Mt) stand compared to forest fire emissions. They cease to matter. This is what is called a tipping point. These occur when a change starts a trend from which there is no recovery. We don’t want the events of 2023 to be repeated with increasing frequency.
The comments by the Copernicus group detail forest fire events in Canada in 2023.

Unprecedented wildfires in Canada

The wildfires that Canada experienced during 2023 have generated the highest carbon emissions in record for this country by a wide margin. According to GFASv1.2 data, the wildfires that started to take place in early May emitted almost 480 megatonnes of carbon, which is almost five-times the average for the past 20 years accounting for 23% of the total global wildfire carbon emissions for 2023. The global annual total estimated fire emissions (as of 10 December) is 2100 megatonnes of carbon. These wildfires in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Nova Scotia, the Northwest territories, and Quebec were remarkable not only in terms of carbon emissions but also in terms of their intensity, persistence and impact on local communities.

GFASv1.2 daily total cumulative carbon emissions since 1 January (right) for Canada. Source: CAMS

The smoke pollution generated by wildfires across Canada severely affected the air quality not only locally, but also for large parts of North America and beyond, with several episodes of long-range smoke transport across the Atlantic leading to hazy skies over parts of Europe.

CAMS Senior Scientist, Mark Parrington comments: “The wildfires in Canada were the significant story in global fire emissions for 2023. The scale across much of the country, and persistence with fires continuing from May until October, was at a level which has never been seen in the data record (including longer records than those we have in the GFAS dataset).”

When it was recently put to Bill Gates that planting trees would offset our ghg emissions, he exclaimed “How stupid are we?” Although planting trees is a good thing, it cannot absorb the carbon we are pulling from the ground and burning and, in particular, as climate goes dynamic, it may be a futile gesture. But forests are vital and they serve also as the canary in the coal mine that everyone can witness.

We heed a comprehensive strategy that reduces the human ecological footprint. Economic growth must be seen as the Ponzi scheme it is. The signs are there. They are present in graphs, in the air, on the ground and in the events unfolding all over the world we read about daily.

Sustainability isn’t a fad, it has to be a permanent state if humanity is to continue to progress.

John Erik Meyer

*human civilizations greatest resource is a stable climate

Humanity’s once-in-a-species opportunity to develop and advance was created by a period of unusually moderate and favourable climate. Consistent weather patterns allowed the crops, game and timber harvests humans consumed to become dependable. Civilization developed as a result.

** Energy Returned on Energy Invested – the relative richness of humanity’s most important resource.
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