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Is High Heat The New Normal?

Forest fires have already left an indelible imprint in 2011, according to Renata D’Aliesio’s article, 2011 shaping up to be the year of the forest fire, published in the Globe and Mail.

Flames razed or heavily damaged nearly 500 homes and businesses in the northern Alberta town of Slave Lake, while the threat of destruction has forced more than 3,000 people from their isolated northwestern Ontario communities.

Ontario is warning new fires are expected to start daily as dry conditions persist throughout the province. Across Canada, more land has already burned this year than during the same stretch in 2010, which was the eighth-worst wildfire season since 1970.

Many experts have cautioned that large wildfires could become more common in Canada as the climate warms, which would mean increased lightning strikes and potentially drier forests. Indeed, a new study of wildfires in the northern Rocky Mountains of the United States is the latest research to signal a warning for North America’s forests.

Researchers with the study, which will be published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, expected fires would increase with higher temperatures, but they weren’t prepared for the speed and scale of the changes that are now occurring.

The study predicts that big fires in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem will become an annual event by 2050, whereas in the recent past, it was very common for no fires to occur there at all. The study also shows that, by 2075, the frequency of wildfires could reach unprecedented levels, leaving forests with little time to adapt.

This prediction of weather extremes becoming increasingly common is also examined in a podcast titled ‘Is High Heat The New Normal?’ on WBUR-FM: On Point with Tom Ashbrook, in which experts discuss the effects of extreme heat waves in the US.

They note that this summer’s temperatures, frequently above 32°C (90°F), are affecting people, food supplies and infrastructure in serious measure. Guest Heidi Cullen of the NY Times highlights the need to adapt and make our cities more resilient for the long term, rather than just coping with the current situation on a seasonal basis.

These new weather trends point to a need for adaptation planning and strategy that addresses the impacts of climate change and ensures the safety of those most vulnerable to extreme weather. ACT addressed this issue in its 2009 report: Climate Change Adaptation and Extreme Weather, authored by eminent Canadian disaster and risk management expert, Dr. Gordon McBean.

ACT’s upcoming “Climate Change Adaptation and Water Governance” report, due out in September 2011, will outline new opportunities for effective water management in Canada, a topic that is intimately linked to the issues of drought, fires, and extreme weather.

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