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Guest comment: The beginning of a new normal that’s anything but

Editor’s note: This is the third and final installment of former Yellowknife resident Barry Zellen and his interviews with author Ed Struzik and former NNSL Media editor James Hrynyshyn about the forest fire season.
A massive wall of smoke from the South Slave wildfire burning east of Hay River fills the sky this past September. Photo courtesy of GNWT

Editor’s note: This is the third and final installment of former Yellowknife resident Barry Zellen and his interviews with author Ed Struzik and former NNSL Media editor James Hrynyshyn about the forest fire season.

Barry Zellen is a former Yellowknife resident who is now an independent scholar specializing in Arctic geopolitics. Photo courtesy of Barry Zellen

I asked Hrynyshyn if the 2023 NWT wildfires present us with a timely — and dramatic — reminder of what Arctic security truly means, less about tank formations crossing borders, more about upheavals to the natural balance itself?

Hrynyshyn replied thoughtfully that he has “long thought that the threat from natural upheaval is far greater than any military threat. There’s simply no good reason to physically invade the Arctic when there are much more important fronts to worry about. The trick is to make governments understand that melting permafrost and ice caps pose enormous threats to the entire human race by releasing CO2 and methane and decreasing the albedo of the planet and accelerating ocean warming even further.

“For many of those far from the Arctic, these are abstractions. For those in the Arctic they are all too real — climate change is here and now. Unfortunately, Northerners have no power, and I don’t think those that do are prepared to do much about it yet.”

If there is an upside, it’s only that awareness of the profound dangers of Arctic climate change has grown dramatically since Hrynyshyn’s arrival to the NWT at the dawn of the 1990s.

“Given how much attention real journalists are finally devoting to the issue (The Wasington Post has 30 full-time climate journalists now!), I don’t think I need to continue egging them on, which was the point of Class M. So I have switched to hyperlocal podcasting.”

I asked Struzik if the mutual challenge wildfires presents to the entire Arctic with a compelling reason to reach across the re-emerging East-West divide, and resume pan-Arctic co-operation on at least this particular challenge given its gravity and enormity.

“I wish it were so,” he said. “But based on everything I’ve seen and heard from scientists so far, pan-Arctic cooperation is unlikely so long as (Vladimir) Putin is in power.”

Struzik recalled how following the catastrophic 2010 fire season, the German government offered money and expertise to help restore the hydrological regimes that keep Russia’s peaty bogs, fens, and marshes wet and their carbon sequestered.

But on the day that Russia invaded Ukraine, German institutes — including the Succow Foundation — withdrew their support. Just weeks afterward, a Russian bomb in Ukraine likely triggered a wildfire in the forest around the Chernobyl nuclear site, a focus of another rewetting project.

Struzik cautions that this “cessation of scientific collaboration comes at a precarious moment for the Arctic: Environmental risks associated with sea ice loss, pollution, and shipping are increasing; Russia and other Arctic states are proposing new boundary lines along the continental shelf that would expand their claims over the Arctic Ocean seabed; and peatlands have been continuing to burn after a year of record-setting wildfires in northern Russia, adding substantially to the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. (Russia is the world’s fourth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.)

In addition, China is ramping up its economic interests in the Arctic. Struzik’s takeaway: “The Arctic has long been a model for optimism and international cooperation. A lot needs to be done to keep it that way.”

As Struzik explains: “What happens in the Arctic matters to the rest of the world. There are many examples to drive this point home. One of the most impactful is the jet stream, which manufactures weather and moves weather from west to east. The strength of the jet stream is dependent on the difference in temperature between the Arctic and mid-latitudes. The larger the difference, the stronger the jet stream.

“As the temperatures difference wanes in this warming world, the jet stream weakens. That’s why we see heat domes building in places like British Columbia, which has been hard hit by wildfires since 2017. The jet stream is not strong enough to move it and allow wet Pacific moisture to move in.”

Hrynyshyn predicts that we can expect lots more disruption in the future.

“I don’t see this year’s fire as the culmination, but the beginning a new normal, in which those who have settled the North have to spend of a lot of scarce resources just maintaining a livable environment,” he said.

He further notes that the NWT “hasn’t engaged in forest management practices as forestry isn’t a significant industry, so you can’t blame the fires on build-up of forest floor detritus, like you can in California. It’s simply that the summers are longer and hotter and winters and shorter.”

And this is having profound impacts on the entirety of the circumpolar world, he adds: “Certainly the permafrost is melting around the world. Any literature search of climate change at the ecosystem level will show dramatic changes in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, northern Scandinavia, and Russia. Meanwhile, glaciologists are worried about Antarctic ice cover, which may be about to experience a sudden and catastrophic decline. And just about everything will be affected.”

Struzik concurs, noting “many people refer to this new wildfire paradigm as the ‘new normal’.”

But as he notes above, this rising tide of Arctic infernos is not altogether new, dating back two decades to the start of the 21st Century. Moreover, “there is nothing normal about what is happening. Almost each year since the turn of the century has brought something new and unexpected, as I point out in my book Dark Days at Noon: The Future of Fire. Unless we come to grips with this new reality, nothing will be normal.”