Over the past several weeks, the wildfires occurring in Alberta, Canada have been at the forefront of significant media coverage. Fort McMurray, a town with a population of 80,000 in boreal Canada, has been evacuated in response to these severe fires.
These evacuations, along with damage to property, have been devastating on the population.
Many members of the community are connected in some way to oil sands production in Alberta, a paradox that is worth noting as climate change could continue to generate substantial threats to the boreal forest, particularly through wildfires.
Many scientists have pointed to the amplified aridity and temperature of the boreal region of Canada as holding partial responsibility for the creation and vast nature of the Fort McMurray wildfire.
With reduced snowfall throughout the past winter as well as a warm spring that quickly melted the existing snowpack expected to provide moisture for much of the spring and summer, the conditions were seamlessly set for such a momentous wildfire to take hold.
Warming temperatures and an expedited melting of snow creates dry underbrush and leaf litter, critical to the inception of a wildfire.
These conditions have become increasingly more common in typically wet, forested areas, such as the environment surrounding Fort McMurray.
Occurrences such as the fire in Alberta, Canada, therefore, while extremely devastating to one particular community, could become unexceptional for the entire northern region of the globe.
The boreal forest, comprised of cold-tolerant conifers such as pine, fir and spruce, constitutes approximately a third of the forested area on earth.
The forests, which have been at risk from deforestation for many years, now represent a carbon source that holds an exceptional amount of potentially volatile greenhouse gases in their trees.
While the delicate balance between wildfires, deforestation and capture of carbon dioxide by trees currently does not represent a large influx of carbon into the atmosphere, experts fear a potential change.
Data from Canada and Alaska, as reported by the New York Times, has shown a significant increase in the amount and extent of wildfires in recent years. These wildfires threaten the livelihood of the boreal forest and have the potential to, if escalation continues, release an immense amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
In a delicate balance of carbon cycling, such an inflow of carbon to the atmosphere could, as pointed to by several experts, expedite the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet, which has the potential to cause sea level rise of 20 feet or more.
Wildfires, which have shown an increasing proclivity to occur in northern boreal forest, threaten not only the livelihood of the citizens and communities that reside within them, but also potentially the planet as a whole.
As climate change continues to exacerbate the threats and commonality of such fires, it can also be fueled by the releases coming from these same events.
With further repercussions of climate change becoming apparent to the public eye, the way local and federal governments tackle wildfires will be a vital issue in the years to come.