No, I’m not talking about Chinatown in Vancouver. Or Chinatown in Toronto. Or any other Chinatown in Canada. I’m talking about this. Or, more exactly, this. Poor air quality is making it difficult to breathe in Canada and elsewhere.
Unlike the situation in China, you can’t really blame the Canadians for their poor air quality. (Unless, of course, some serial arsonist is wreaking havoc unfettered.) You see, it has been an active fire season in western Canada, to put it mildly. Here’s a not-so-mild way to put it. That article, from 3 July 2014, put the number of fires in the Northwest Territories alone at 123, with most of them caused by lightning. But, after a check of the Northwest Territories’ Live Fire Map on 30 July 2014 it looks like there are more than that:
"Live Fire Map" from NWTFire, acquired 17:00 UTC 30 July 2014. This is a static image, not an interactive map.
I estimated 160-170 fires in that image (assuming I didn’t double count or miss any). How many fires can you count?
At one point earlier in July, it was estimated that battling the fires was costing $1 million per day! The fires have been impacting power plants, causing power outages, impacting cellular and Internet service, closing the few roads that exist that far north, and doubling the number of respiratory illnesses reported in Yellowknife, the territory’s capital.
It’s no secret that this area is sparsely populated. At last count, the territory had roughly 41,000 residents in 1.3 million km2. (Fun fact: the Northwest Territories used to make up 75% of the land area of Canada. It has since been split up among 5 provinces and into two other territories. With the formation of Nunavut in 1999, it was reduced to being only twice the size of Texas.) If so few people live there, why should we care if they have a few fires?
If you are so heartless as to ask that question, you are also short-sighted and selfish. For one, I already explained the damage that the fires are doing. For two, fires like these impact more than just the immediate area and more than just Canada. Let me explain that but, first, let me show you the fires themselves – as seen by VIIRS – over the course of the last month.
Animation of VIIRS Fire Temperature RGB images 24 June - 25 July 2014
You will have to click on the above image, then on the “933×700” link below the banner to see the animation at full resolution. It is 15 MB, so it may take a while to load if you have limited bandwidth. What you are looking at is the Fire Temperature RGB in the area of Great Slave Lake, the area hardest hit by this fire season. There are a lot of fires visible over the course of the month!
See how the larger fires spread out? They look like the large scale version of an individual flame spreading out on a piece of paper. (Don’t try to replicate it at home. I don’t want you catching your house on fire!) Of course, the spread of the fires is dependent on the winds, humidity, moisture content in the vegetation, and the firefighters – if they’re doing their job.
Now, these weren’t the only fires in Canada during this time. Check out this Fire Temperature RGB image from 15 July 2014 and see how many (rather large) fires there are in British Columbia and Saskatchewan:
VIIRS Fire Temperature RGB composite of channels M-10, M-11 and M-12, taken 21:08 UTC 15 July 2014
Make sure to click through to the full resolution version. I counted 9 large fires in British Columbia, 1 in Alberta (partially obscured by clouds) and 6 in Saskatchewan. If you look closely, you might also spot 3 small fires in Washington plus more small fires in Oregon. (“Small” here is compared to the fires in Canada.)
Now, all these fires means there must be smoke and, because VIIRS has channels in the blue and green portions of the visible spectrum, we can see the smoke clearly. This is one of the benefits of the True Color RGB (in addition to what we discussed last time). If I tried to create another animation, like I did above, showing the extent of the smoke plumes it would be so large it might crash the Internet. Instead, here are some of the highlights (or low-lights, depending on your point of view) from the last month.
On 6 July 2014, the smoke is largely confined to the area around Great Slave Lake:
VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 20:35 UTC 6 July 2014
The very next day (7 July 2014) the smoke is blown down into Alberta and Saskatchewan (almost as far south as Calgary and Saskatoon):
VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 20:16 UTC 7 July 2014
One day later (8 July 2014) smoke is visible down into Montana, North Dakota and beyond the edge of the image in South Dakota (a distance of over 2000 km [1200 miles] from the source!):
VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 19:57 UTC 8 July 2014
On the 12th of July, you could see a single smoke plume stretching from Great Slave Lake all the way into southwestern Manitoba (plus smoke over British Columbia from their fires):
VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 20:23 UTC 12 July 2014
When the fires really get going in British Columbia a few days later, the smoke covers most of western Canada. On 15 July 2014, smoke is visible from the state of Washington to the southern reaches of Nunavut and Hudson Bay:
VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 19:27 UTC 15 July 2014
One day later (16 July 2014), and it appears that smoke covers 2/3 of Alberta, nearly all of Saskatchewan, all of western Manitoba, southern Nunavut, southeastern Northwest Territories, and most of Montana and North Dakota. There is also smoke over Washington, Oregon and northern Idaho:
VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-3, M-4 and M-5, taken 20:48 UTC 16 July 2014
A quick estimate puts the area of smoke in the above image at 2.5 million km2, which is roughly a third the size of the contiguous 48 states!
With renewed activity in the fires in the Northwest Territories last week, the smoke was still going strong over Canada, impacting Churchill, Manitoba (home of polar bears and beluga whales):
VIIRS True Color RGB composite of channels M-4, M-4 and M-5, taken 20:17 UTC 23 July 2014
I guess if the melting polar ice caps don’t kill off the polar bears, they can still get cancer from all this smoke. Maybe the “world’s saddest polar bear” will want to stay in Argentina.
I should add that some of my colleagues at CIRA and I have sensitive noses and were able to smell smoke right here in town (Fort Collins, Colorado) earlier this month. Plus, there were a few smoky/hazy sunsets. (Although it should be clarified that we don’t know if it was from the fires in Canada or the fires in Washington and Oregon. There weren’t any fires in Colorado at the time.) Nevertheless, the areal coverage and extent of the smoke from fires like these is immense, and can have impacts thousands of miles away from the source. And, it’s all carbon entering our atmosphere.
UPDATE (8/1/2014): Colleagues at CIMSS put together this image combining two orbits of data over North America from yesterday (31 July 2014), where you can see smoke stretching from Nunavut all the way down to Indiana, Ohio and West Virginia. There may even be some smoke over Kentucky and Tennessee. Witnesses at CIMSS reported very hazy skies across southern Wisconsin as a result.