Photo is from 08/21/2015 when smoke from western forest fires transformed Minneapolis sunsets.
This morning, I woke up early. My subconscious alarm, that reptilian part of my brain that automatically warns me about ancient threats, had gone off. Something was wrong and I could smell it. Smoke. I got up and went through the house sniffing for the source: nothing. The campfire smell was coming from outside. Sunrise confirmed it with a molten red sun.
Smoke from two forest fires, the gigantic fire in Alberta, Canada and a blaze up north near Bemidji are pumping vast amounts of CO2, particulate matter and noxious gases into the atmosphere. I can still smell it at mid day. A pale high altitude haze mutes the power of the sun.
Preoccupied with the endlessly repeating of the presidential campaign’s non-news, the media has given little attention to the fire in Alberta, even though it is a disaster of historic proportions. A city of 90,000 people has been evacuated; one of the largest evacuations in North America in 100 years. Some of the vast oil sands pit mines, refineries and pipelines are threatened. Over 25,000 acres of northern forest, vital for sequestering CO2 from the atmosphere and combating climate change have been destroyed.
What we are witnessing is another example of global warming and the future problems that we need to begin preparing for. Fort McMurray is a product of the oil boom. In the 1950’s it had a population of about 1,000 people but today it was 90 times that size until the fire. People from all over Canada and the world flocked to Fort McMurray for work and a chance at a better life. What survives of Fort McMurray is a ghost town. Now what are they going to do? How can you rebuild a city if its people have been dispersed, businesses and infrastructure destroyed?
A lot of people will not return to Fort McMurray. The tar sands oil boom is over and the army of workers once needed to build the mines, refineries, pipelines, housing, and associated infrastructure are no longer needed. Some of the smaller tar sands mines are closing down completely. Fort McMurray was already feeling the impact of lost jobs before the forest fire but, now the situation is far worse. The fire has taken many service jobs as well. The Alberta and Canadian economies will feel the effects of this fire for years to come.
The majestic old growth trees that made this area beautiful are gone. An area of over 390 square miles has been stripped of its ecosystem. When the rains eventually come there will be mud slides and flooding. It will be decades before a forest returns and it will be scrub and not the majestic old growth. Even if you lived in Fort McMurray for your entire life, would you return to the desolation?
What happens to the 90,000 or so refugees fleeing the fire? Where will they live temporarily and in the long-term? What will they do? Will they have resources to rebuild or relocate and start fresh or will they be condemned to poverty? Will there be long-term psychological support for those that are injured or traumatized? These are the questions that will come up again and again as climate change forces people from their homes and livelihoods.
To deal with climate change effectively we must also create sustainable social programs and institutions that address the dislocation of large numbers of people over a long period of time. Otherwise, all of us face a very uncertain future; just one climate event away from poverty and homelessness.
It’s time to open our minds and think creatively. Our future depends on it.