Brian Helmuth

As Canada wildfires rage, faculty experts examine the ramifications

by Thea Singer

Since early May, wild­fires have been raging in and around the city of Fort McMurray in Canada’s Alberta province, the country’s oil-​​sands cap­ital. The latest evac­u­a­tion took place on Monday: Some 8,000 workers at oil-​​sands facil­i­ties and camps north of the city were ordered to leave when a new fire to the west began heading north. The air quality health index had soared by then, reaching 38; the scale nor­mally goes from 1 to 10. More than two weeks ear­lier, 88,000 res­i­dents had been ordered to leave their homes, and nearly 10 per­cent of all build­ings in the area—some 2,400 out of 25,000—have been destroyed.

The cat­a­strophe res­onates across dis­ci­plines, among them resilience, finance, and cli­mate change. We asked North­eastern experts in those areas to examine the repercussions.

Daniel Aldrich, pro­fessor of polit­ical sci­ence, public policy, and urban affairs and co-​​director of Northeastern’s Secu­rity and Resilience Studies master’s program

The dev­as­ta­tion from the fires has been severe. What will deter­mine how long the recovery process will take, and how might it be helped along?
Recovery is a func­tion of three pri­mary fac­tors: labor markets/​jobs, internal cohe­sion and social cap­ital, and government-​​directed infra­struc­ture and housing-​​recovery money. With thou­sands of houses destroyed, it will take months, if not years, for per­ma­nent housing to be built for the evac­uees. Many may chose to live near their old homes in shel­ters or trailers until the process is com­plete; one-​​third or more may choose to relo­cate and start lives else­where. A big factor influ­encing this is their sense of belonging to the com­mu­nity and their ties to the area. If they have friends, family, chil­dren in school, and other strong ties, they may ignore the costs of rebuilding and wait it out. If they are more iso­lated, have fewer con­nec­tions, and feel less sense of place, they are likely to move on. To accel­erate the rebuilding process, the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment should ensure that all plans are driven by actual need, and not envi­sioned need, and that the com­mu­nity can keep together through reg­ular contact—ideally face to face.

There will likely be psy­cho­log­ical reper­cus­sions for the tens of thou­sands evac­u­ated. How can these effects—anxiety, per­haps post trau­matic stress disorder—be ameliorated?
In our research in New Orleans and Fukushima, Japan, we have iden­ti­fied sev­eral fac­tors to help alle­viate anx­iety, depres­sion, and PTSD after trau­matic events, and all of them are linked to social net­works. Indi­vid­uals who have more friends, more con­nec­tions, and more sense of belonging will find them­selves better shielded against the anx­iety and depres­sion that reg­u­larly accom­pany large traumas like the destruc­tion of a home, death of a loved one, or forced evac­u­a­tion. Fur­ther, inte­grating these sur­vivors into the rhythms of daily life—by ensuring that the chil­dren are back at school and by cre­ating jobs for the adults—will accel­erate their ability to process the trauma. Sur­vivors who do very well turn their nar­ra­tives of sur­viving dis­aster into ones of growth and fur­thering goals rather than of simply being survivors.

Jef­frey Born, pro­fessor of finance in the D’Amore McKim School of Busi­ness who spe­cial­izes in oil and gas

Some 40 per­cent of U.S. oil imports come from Canada. What effect will the wild­fires likely have on the average U.S. con­sumer regarding gas prices for our cars, heating for our homes, and other oil-​​based products?
There are news reports out of the region sug­gesting that oil pro­duc­tion will return to pre-​​fire levels in a couple of weeks. Oil prices have gen­er­ally risen since the scope of the fire became evi­dent. This will prob­ably add a couple of cents to a gallon of gaso­line, but whether this will be a per­ma­nent increase is unclear.

Nor is it clear whether oil prices will be able to hold to these levels. This month, the pro­mo­tion of Khalid Al-​​Falih, chairman of the state oil com­pany Saudi Aramco, to the posi­tion of Saudi oil min­ister was unex­pect­edly sped up. This move and a plan to pri­va­tize part of Aramco are being broadly inter­preted as con­fir­ma­tion of rumored oil-​​production increases by the Saudis. This, com­bined with the Cana­dian oil production’s going back on line, sug­gests that this will be the second straight summer of low gas prices.

Brian Hel­muth, pro­fessor of envi­ron­mental sci­ence and public policy who spe­cial­izes in the effects of cli­mate and cli­mate change on the phys­i­ology and ecology of marine organisms

There have been many large wild­fires around the world in the past few years in addi­tion to the one this month in Alberta, Canada. Other parts of the world that have expe­ri­enced them include the U.S., Tas­mania, Siberia, Mon­golia, and China. What role does global warming play in these catastrophes?
We gen­er­ally think of global cli­mate change as a “threat mul­ti­plier,” meaning that it tends to make existing prob­lems like forest fires much worse. Large fires tend to happen during periods of drought, which are more fre­quent and of greater inten­sity under cli­mate change: Already wet places are get­ting wetter, and dry places are get­ting drier. Higher tem­per­a­tures in the early spring often cause snow to melt ear­lier, for example, which increases the like­li­hood of drought and a longer fire season. These con­di­tions also tend to make the fires hotter and longer burning. So while we can’t attribute any fire, such as the one in Alberta, directly to cli­mate change, we do know that the like­li­hood and mag­ni­tude of such fires is on the rise due to the impacts of cli­mate change. It’s sort of like dousing the roof of your house in kerosene—the actual fire may be “caused” by someone smoking in bed, but the fact that you made your house flam­mable greatly increased the chances of having a really bad fire.

Con­versely, how do such mas­sive fires con­tribute to cli­mate change themselves?
There is evi­dence that large fires are in turn con­tributing to cli­mate change through the rapid release of carbon dioxide into the atmos­phere from burning trees. Trees serve as a huge carbon sink. So the enor­mous forest fires that we have been seeing do make the problem of cli­mate change worse, cre­ating a vis­cous feed­back loop.

Originally published in news@Northeastern on May 18, 2016.

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