Fort McMurray: The Impact of Climate Change on the Weather

Fort McMurray climate change

Fort McMurray is a city in northeastern Alberta, Canada, located inside the Athabasca oil sands and part of the municipality of Wood Buffalo. It became a thriving industrial centre over the past century due to its proximity to Alberta’s oil sands.1 Climate change has had a considerable impact on Fort McMurray’s weather, particularly in recent years.2 It was pivotal in causing Canada’s two costliest disasters; the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire and the 2013 Alberta floods.3

What is the weather like in Fort McMurray?

Northeastern Alberta has wet weather throughout the year and relatively hot and dry summers.4 However, the weather in Fort McMurray is becoming more extreme as a result of climate change.5 Greater quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere have led to hotter summers and wetter winters.6 This increases the likelihood and severity of disasters, such as flooding and wildfires.7

Temperature rises in summer result in more heatwaves, a longer growing season and reduced soil moisture, all of which heighten the possibility of wildfires.8 Drier conditions during the summer months also increase the length and intensity of the fire season.9 Wildfires in Fort McMurray now start earlier and extend later than ever before.10 Hot weather can also cause more lightning – the initial spark for roughly half of Canada’s wildfires.11 When combined, these conditions produce bigger, hotter and faster-moving wildfires, as seen across the land of Fort McMurray in 2016.12

Warmer temperatures as a result of global warming have also increased the risk of flooding.13 Canada has seen smaller snowpacks, earlier snowmelt, higher streamflows and thawing permafrost due to climate change.14 Evapotranspiration rates, the amount of water that moves from the earth to the air,15 have been identified as a contributing factor in the 2013 Alberta floods, as has greater precipitation.16 Anthropogenic – or human-caused – climate change is behind the temperature rises that engender these phenomena.17

The cost of climate change on Fort McMurray

The Fort McMurray wildfire of 2016 was the most expensive disaster in Canadian history.18 The fire began on May 1st and destroyed about 2,400 buildings in just two days.19 It forced the evacuation of over 80,000 Fort McMurray and local community residents.20 By July 5th it was under control, by which time it had burned 590,000 hectares and eradicated the habitats of over 500 species of wildlife.21 Estimates for the cost of the disaster are $3.58 billion, according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada.22 Experts conclude that climate change made its occurrence 1.5 to six times more likely than just natural climate factors.23 

Three years prior to the 2016 wildfire, another costly disaster ravaged the Alberta region. The 2013 floods caused $1.7 billion worth of damage24, and five local residents lost their lives.25 Average winter temperatures in the province have increased by three degrees over the past seventy years, significantly increasing the chance of flooding.26 Heavy rain often supplants spring snowstorms, making the risk and intensity of flooding as much as 20 per cent higher.27

These are not isolated incidents. From 2009 to 2012, the province averaged $673 million a year in insured losses from extreme weather events.28 This is a significant increase from the averages between 1983 to 2008, which were about $100 million a year.29 Overall, catastrophic weather incidents have more than tripled since the 1980s.30 As Canada’s and the rest of the world’s carbon emissions continue to rise, the impact of climate change on Fort McMurray’s weather will continue to devastate both people and the natural world.31 

Sources

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  2. Leahy, S. (2019). This is the world’s most destructive oil operation—and it’s growing. [online] Nationalgeographic.com. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/04/alberta-canadas-tar-sands-is-growing-but-indigenous-people-fight-back/.
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  15. dictionary.cambridge.org. (n.d.). EVAPOTRANSPIRATION | meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary. [online] Available at: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/evapotranspiration [Accessed 14 Jan. 2021].
  16. Teufel, B., Diro, G.T., Whan, K., Milrad, S.M., Jeong, D.I., Ganji, A., Huziy, O., Winger, K., Gyakum, J.R., de Elia, R., Zwiers, F.W. and Sushama, L. (2016). Investigation of the 2013 Alberta flood from weather and climate perspectives. Climate Dynamics, 48(9–10), pp.2881–2899.
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  31. GREENHOUSE GAS (GHG) EMISSIONS (INCL. FORESTRY) PER CAPITA. (n.d.). [online] Available at: https://www.climate-transparency.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/BROWN-TO-GREEN_2018_Canada_FINAL.pdf.

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