This was not another report of melting icecaps, rising oceans, blistering heat or unusual tornadoes somewhere far away; this was a horizon-to-horizon pall over us, rising from infernos across the great Canadian north that had been ignited by record temperatures, record drought and ceaseless lightning storms. Nothing like it had ever happened before — these wildfires began far earlier and spread far faster than usual, and they have burned far more boreal forest than any fire in Canada’s modern history.
As of this writing, 5,881 wildfires have consumed 15.3 million hectares, about 59,000 square miles, dwarfing the 10-year average of 2.6 million hectares per summer. That’s like all New York State incinerated, and the fires are burning still. One environmentalist told me that “unprecedented” has been used so often that it has lost any meaning against the uniqueness and horror of what is happening.
With the melting Arctic to their north and the immensity of their northern wilderness, Canadians are not strangers to climate anxiety. But as The Globe and Mail reported, “Canada’s summer of fire and smoke” has still come as a profound shock to the nation, “materially and psychologically, as people across the country report a sense of dread about the disaster unfolding just out of sight, and what it portends for the future.”
And as the summer unfolded, it became evident that it’s not just smoke, and not just Canada. This has been the summer from climate hell all across Earth, when it ceased being possible to escape or deny what we have done to our planet and ourselves. “Even I am surprised by this year,” said Michael Flannigan, a professor at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, British Columbia, who has been studying the interaction of fire and climate for over 35 years. “Temperatures are rising at the rate we thought they would, but the effects are more severe, more frequent, more critical. It’s crazy and getting crazier.”
The planet had its hottest week ever in July and, is entering “uncharted territory,” the World Meteorological Organization declared. Maui, the loveliest of Hawaii islands, was savaged by a wildfire that killed more than 100 people and destroyed the picturesque town of Lahaina. Floods battered New England; a reading of 101.1 degrees F. (the ideal temperature for a hot tub) was recorded in the waters of Manatee Bay in South Florida. China had its heaviest rains in 140 years; record wildfires devastated Greek islands, and the list goes on. None of it is normal.