Between 1981 and 2010, the average amount of smoke Edmonton recorded annually was 14 hours. So far this year, that number was more than 199 hours.
In the spring and summer of 2023, Alberta has dealt with unprecedented wildfires, flooding, smoky — almost apocalyptic — air, air quality health index alerts, heat warnings, tornados and electricity grid alerts.
Another special air-quality statement was issued Thursday due to smoke, and Edmonton’s air-quality health index reached a Level 7 (high risk) Friday.
“We’ve had an extended period of warm and dry conditions through much of Alberta and western Canada,” said Justin Shelley, a weather preparedness meteorologist for Environment and Climate Change Canada. “That’s been a primer for this significant wildfire year.
“Going back to April, every month we’ve seen temperatures above average and precipitation below average.”
It’s a trend that’s likely to continue, experts say.
“As we see temperatures rise, changing precipitation patterns, we have drier years and warmer years, it’s going to lead to conditions that are more favourable for wildfire starts and growth,” Shelley said.
It also likely to mean more wildfire smoke.
“We’ve definitely seen a trend in recent years where we’re seeing a lot more smoke hours than we used to,” Shelley said.
Between 1981 and 2010, Edmonton saw an average of 14 “smoke hours” a year, he explained. As of Aug. 31, Edmonton has recorded 199 hours of smoke in 2023.
The bulk of that came in May (108 smoke hours) and July (82 smoke hours).
Environment and Climate Change Canada measures smoke hours by observed reduced visibility.
“In terms of what we consider smoke hours — (it’s) when visibility is at six statute miles or less than 10 kilometres.”
The ECCC smoke-hour data sets show specifically the “total number of hours between May and September where the visibility reported was equal to or below 9.7 km in smoke.” There would be additional hours each year where there was either higher visibilities in smoke, or where it could have been reported as “haze” only, Shelley explained.
He added that the presence of smoke doesn’t necessarily mean the air-quality index was high or very high at the time as well.
The index — a different measure — is calculated by the presence and amount of various pollutants, including ozone, nitrogen dioxide and fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, which is found in wildfire smoke.
“Generally speaking, the trend of more smoke hours has been the same throughout Alberta this year and over recent years,” Shelley said.
So far in 2023, Calgary has recorded 445 smoke hours.
The average between 1981 and 2010 in Calgary was 12 smoke hours annually.
Shelley said the most recent decade has seen an increase in annual smoke hours for Calgary as well, but the exact averages for 1991-2020 have not yet been published.
In 2021, Edmonton recorded 126 hours of smoke. “2018 was the record for Edmonton, when we had 229 hours meeting that criteria. Those records go back to 1953.”
As of Aug. 30, Alberta had recorded a record-setting 1.3-million hectares burned by wildfires in the 2023 season. Wildfire season officially lasts until October.
“We’re looking at an El Nino year, shaping up for the fall and winter months, so this trend of warmer and drier conditions across western Canada is likely to continue,” Shelley said.
“A lot of years where you have larger wildfire complexes, they can burn well into the fall and even the winter months.”
To compare, in 2022, a total of 128,400 hectares were burned. The next highest recent season was in 2019, when 791,800 hectares burned.
Shelley said the trend of longer and more intense wildfire seasons has pushed Environment and Climate Change Canada to increase its tracking practices, create wildfire smoke trajectories, and try to forecast wildfire and smoke. The agency is also increasing public education on the health risks of wildfire and smoke.
“Are you prepared for the season ahead?… Are any members of your family at higher risk in these smoky conditions? Do you have adequate supply of medications, food and water? Thinking about evacuations, if needed.”
Ipsos poll on climate action and wildfires
A new Ipsos poll conducted on behalf of Global News reveals that a strong majority of Canadians believe the federal government has the key responsibility to combat climate change, and quickly.
Six in 10 (59 per cent) Canadians agree that if Canada’s government does not act now to combat climate change, it will be failing the people of Canada.
However, Canadians are also concerned about the current economic conditions and how they will be asked to contribute on an individual level. Over one-third (35 per cent) feel now may not be the right time to invest in climate action given the economic pinch felt by many across the country.
Ipsos found the majority of Canadians polled agree that the recent wildfires have been worse because of climate change (63 per cent). Agreement is highest among women (67 per cent, compared to 59 per cent men), and those in British Columbia (72 per cent), Quebec (69 per cent), and Ontario (64 per cent).
However, a notable portion (19 per cent) disagree that climate change and recent wildfires are connected phenomena.
Unprecedented extreme weather in Alberta fuels climate anxiety
The tangible signs of the climate crisis are affecting people’s mental health as well.
“We know that the impact is quite great, especially on the youth of today, but I think everyone is noticing it in their own way,” said Dr. Christine Gibson, a Calgary-based doctor with the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.
“I think even the people who are denying that it’s a climate emergency are stuck in a mental health trap that we call dissociation or free state, where they’re just so worried that they have to deny that there’s a problem even when the evidence is in the air you’re breathing.”
Gibson cited a 2021 Lancet study that found children around the world are incredibly anxious about the environment.
“They feel that we have failed to protect them and the planet. And the way it manifests in the individual is really high levels of anxiety, depression, a sense of helplessness, hopelessness, and despondency.
“We’re seeing lots of young people say: ‘I won’t ever have children,’ which is… a measure of their existential angst.”
Coping with climate anxiety
Gibson says it’s important to do the inner work and stay in tune with your body’s cues.
“Noticing whether you’re in a state of fight or flight — which is that high-tone really stressed, restless movement energy — or that low-tone dissociated, checked-out energy. I think many of us can land in those states. So getting to know our own nervous system and really working on self-regulation is key.”
Taking action can also help, she said.
“This trauma isn’t happening to individuals, it’s a collective trauma. So learning the leverage points that we can interact – at the level of policy and governance and leadership — and actually make a difference.
“We have different amounts of privilege and leverage but using what we can and feeling hopeful about our own ability to make change I think is important,” Gibson said.
Halifax psychologist Simon Sherry told Global News he’s observed an increase in the number of clients talking to him about ecological grief.
“You can mourn the loss of our environment and its destruction, and that loss is often painful and analogous to the grief from the loss of a loved one or grief from the loss of a pet,” he says.
But Sherry also says that grief or fear can and should be translated into concrete action. The challenge, he says, is not to let those negative emotions take hold.
“If you are passive and sedentary and ruminative, sitting on the couch and doing nothing is where your grief and anxiety and depression festers and grows,” he says. “The enormity of this problem is paralytic.”
Simple, everyday actions that convey an ecologically positive message can go a long way toward helping people break out of their grief, anxiety or fear, Sherry says.
“I would advise people to take specific, concrete, doable and local action, rather than being paralyzed and overwhelmed by uncertainty, denial or catastrophizing.”
With files from By Kamyar Razavi, Global News