Smoke from Canada’s ongoing wildfires continues to darken skies in the United States, and mainstream media outlets like Yahoo News and the New York Times blame climate change. They are wrong. Data disproves a causal connection between the modest warming the Earth has experienced over the past century to Canada’s wildfires and the heatwave Texas recently experienced.
In an article titled, “What the Canada wildfire smoke and Texas heat wave have in common: Climate change,” Yahoo New writes, “With over 120 million U.S. residents across the Midwest and Northeast under an air quality alert and 60 million residents in the South under heat advisories on Thursday, Americans are contending with two different effects caused by climate change.”
In the article “Record Pollution and Heat Herald a Season of Climate Extremes,” the New York Times assessed the situation thusly:
Fires are burning across the breadth of Canada, blanketing parts of the eastern United States with choking, orange-gray smoke. Puerto Rico is under a severe heat alert as other parts of the world have been recently. Earth’s oceans have heated up at an alarming rate.
Human-caused climate change is a force behind extremes like these.
Neither the current wildfires in Canada, nor the heatwave in Texas, which has dissipated a bit— meaning temperatures are currently below the average for the date— can be attributed to long-term climate change.
Wildfires happen every year across the United States and in Canada, which is why both countries have designated “wildfire seasons.” So nothing is new there.
Smoke from wildfires in Canada have periodically darkened or yellowed the skies on the U.S. East Coast and beyond in the past, as they have done in recent weeks. Long before anyone used fossil fuels to generate electricity or for transportation, the New England Historical Society (NEHS) reports smoke from Canadian wildfires created “yellow” or “dark” days multiple times in history, in particular: on May 12, 1706; October. 21, 1716; August, 9 1732; May 19, 1780; July 3, 1814; November, 6-10, 1819; July 8, 1836; September. 2, 1894; and September 24-30, 1950. So contrary to media reports, the smoke drifting into the United States from Canada’s wildfires is hardly unprecedented.
Canada’s May 1780 wildfires delivered so much smoke to the Eastern United States, that May 19, 1780, became known as “New England’s Dark Day.” Reports from the time explain the smoke was so bad that candles had to be lit at midday to see.
As was true in the past when smoke from Canadian wildfires were blown into the United States, the cause is temporary weather conditions, not climate change. Gunnar Schade, D.Sc., an associate professor with Texas A&M University’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences, says that after hitting the air stream the smoke from Canada’s wildfires was delivered by a “North Central Canadian (Arctic) high-pressure system and a persistent, slow-moving, low-pressure system off the northeast coast [which] combined [to] cause large-scale southerly to southeasterly air movement, which has taken the smoke to the U.S. upper Midwest, southeast and east coast.”
Not only were this year’s fires not unique, they also did not, as media stories consistently implied, represent a trend in Canadian wildfires that could be attributed to climate change. Indeed, the evidence shows wildfires in Canada and globally have been declining during the recent period of modest warming.
As pointed out in a previous Climate Realism post by meteorologist Anthony Watts on this topic, data from Canada’s National Forestry Database show declining trends for both the number of fires and area burned over the past 31 years. A study by scientists with the Canadian Forest Service, in fact, attributed the decline in forest fires in Canada over the past few decades to the combined effect of carbon dioxide fertilization and modestly rising temperatures, which resulted in improved soil moisture conditions. Because plants lose less water via the process of transpiration under conditions of high CO2 and higher temperatures, less moisture is drawn from soil.
Globally, NASA satellites have also recorded a significant decline in the number of wildfires. In the report Researchers Detect a Global Drop in Fires, NASA wrote “Globally, the total acreage burned by fires declined 24 percent between 1998 and 2015, according to a new paper published in Science.”
Following the science, therefore, one must conclude that climate change is not to blame for the recent fires in Canada or the smoke they delivered to the eastern U.S. streets and newsrooms.
Indeed, even as wildfires ravage Canada, as of late June, the amount of acres consumed by wildfires in the United States through mid-June 2023 are only 51 percent of ten year average, and data show that Alaska is experiencing its smallest wildfire season in more than 30 years.
The factors responsible for the severity of the 2023 wildfire season in Canada are short-term weather conditions, for instance a drought in some regions, less winter snowfall and warmer temperatures, and long-term poor forest management.
As one peer reviewed study cited by the Canadian Fraser Institute stated:
Canada has failed to fund the proactive management of forest fires sufficiently and is not poised to do better moving forward. “Wildfire management agencies in Canada are at a tipping point. Presuppression [sic] and suppression costs are increasing but program budgets are not.” But clearly, a lack of fire suppression is also a problem: “Wildfire suppression contributes to a wildfire problem but paradoxically it is wildfire use that will help to solve this problem. The wildfire management toolbox must include wildfire use to manage wildfires at the landscape scale because it is not feasible to effectively use prescribed burns and/or fuel management treatments alone to restore expansive wildfire-dependent ecosystems.” That’s a somewhat academic long-winded way of saying you need to fight fire with fire, but the point is valid nonetheless.
Canada is no different in this regard than the United States. As Climate Realism has discussed repeatedly, it takes three things to start a wildfire: fuel, the right weather conditions, and a source of ignition. Shifting forest management policies in the United States since the presidency of Ronald Reagan have resulted in a growing fuel load, with many national forests having more dead standing timber than growing trees, and other forest packed tightly with small trees and underbrush. High fuel loads combined with drought and high heat create tinder box conditions. Then all you need is a lighting strike, malicious arson, or simple human carelessness with a match, cigarette, or improperly tended campfire or trash burning and you have a wildfire.
What about the heat wave in Texas and other parts of the South. Although it was severe for a week or so, that has proven temporary, as demonstrated by the fact that average to below average temperatures for the date are being experienced now. Thus, it can’t be proof of climate change. And, as noted in Climate at a Glance: U.S. Heat Waves:
- In recent decades in the United States, heat waves have been far less frequent and severe than they were in the 1930s.
- The all-time high temperature records set in most states occurred in the first half of the twentieth century.
- The most accurate nationwide temperature station network, implemented in 2005, shows no sustained increase in daily high temperatures in the United States since at least 2005.
That’s right, neither heatwaves nor wildfires, whether in Canada or elsewhere are getting worse.
The fear and actual damage generated by wildfires each year is bad enough without the bought and paid for mainstream media making it worse by encouraging the misdirection of resources from taking actions that address the true causes of wildfires, to the battle against climate change. There is no evidence climate change has or will cause more heatwaves, droughts, or resulting wildfires.