Government Irresponsibility in Response to Climate Crisis and Private Interests
The extent of the wildfires burning in Canada, many out of control, and the extent of the damage they have caused has become a major concern for Canadians and peoples of the countries affected by the quality of the air which is deteriorating apace. The toxic smoke from the fires has spread across Canada, far south into the United States and has reached Europe.
A series of reports produced between 2019 and 2022 by Health Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada and Natural Resources Canada confirm that Canada is the country most affected by global warming in the northern hemisphere, partly because of the marked reduction in polar pack ice. This has a direct impact on the temperature of the Arctic Ocean and its surrounding atmosphere. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and fires have begun to threaten it as well. In the summer of 2020, forest fires in the Arctic broke all records with regard to CO2 emissions, scientists at the Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service (CAMS) reported. Reports confirm that warmer, drier conditions will extend the fire season in boreal forest regions.
The annual area burned and the number of major forest fires has increased in Canada over a period of 50 years, and this trend is obvious when looking at the most recent statistics compiled by the Government of Canada for the period from 1960 to 2010 [see the graphs below].
Based on data in the National Forestry Database, over 8,000 fires occur each year, and burn an average of over 2.1 million hectares [21,000 square kilometres].
Already in 2023, forest fires have burned a record 77,000 square kilometres of woodlands across Canada in a single summer. As of June 27, 492 fires were raging across the country, 259 of which were considered out of control by the authorities responsible for fighting them.
The Need for Timely Satellite Detection
Experts concur that timely satellite detection is crucial to fighting wildfires effectively. Already by 2010 it had become evident that the increase in future wildfire activity would be mostly caused by lightning. Lightning causes about 50 per cent of all fires but accounts for about 85 per cent of the annual area burned. The 1960-2010 graphs and the more updated information on wildfires confirms this and this means that the Canadian and provincial governments would be expected to step up to the plate.
Canada has one of the largest boreal forests in the world and it has a Crown agency called the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), but it has no satellite of its own that can detect lightning even though the technology exists, as demonstrated in December 2022 by the European Space Agency with its European Organization for the Exploration of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSTAT) weather satellites.
"These are sequences of images captured over periods of one minute by the lightning imager onboard the MTG-I1 satellite, which operates in geostationary orbit at an altitude of 36,000 kilometres," explains EUMETSTAT.
"Launched on December 13, 2022 by an Ariane 5 rocket, this third-generation meteorological satellite carries a lightning detection imager equipped with four cameras covering Europe, Africa, the Middle East and part of South America," it writes.
These cameras are capable of continuously observing lightning activity from space but Canada, the second largest country in the world in terms of land surface, mostly located at subarctic and arctic latitudes, has limited capability when it comes to satellite monitoring progress of forest fires in real time. The CSA itself admits that "88 per cent of Canada's 4 million km2 of forested lands is characterized as boreal forest, and is home to some of the largest and most intense wildfires in the world. Every year, Canada sees about 7,500 wildfires burn over 2.5 million hectares of forest, a territory about half the size of Nova Scotia. The amount of forest burned by wildfire is projected to double by 2050 due to our changing climate, which is causing longer wildfire seasons, more extreme weather conditions and increased droughts."
Instead of reiterating what scientists in the field of forest management and climate change have been demanding for years, i.e., the need to have a national plan to forecast and prevent these natural phenomena and most importantly put in place measures to counter them in the most effective way, the CSA, in step with irresponsible governments engaging in warmongering instead of looking after their social responsibilities, does not take action. This is despite the fact that Canada needs satellite monitoring progress of forest fires in real time. Without it, human and material resources cannot be deployed in the most effective way. The CSA has made it very clear that: "On average, about three per cent of wildfires are very large and uncontrolled. Ultimately, these three per cent of wildfires cause about 97 per cent of the burned area. By increasing our capabilities to better anticipate which wildfires have the potential to burn out of control, they can be prioritized for suppression, leading to a drastic reduction in the economic losses related to wildfire."
But when it comes to forest fire detection, Canada depends on satellite data from the United States and Europe, including the European Space Agency's Sentinel satellites. These satellites make it possible to determine a wide range of emissions, from greenhouse gases to particulates and carbon monoxide. This information is crucial in determining how and where to deploy firefighting crews and equipment on a daily basis.
However, some of the most useful data collected by satellites is the radiative power of the fire, a measure of the amount of energy it emits. This satellite information has to be collected in the late afternoon, the most critical period in the development of fires, whereas the American and European satellites that fly over these Canadian regions do so at times when the fires are not burning at their peak.
In the above illustration, coloured bars show the overpass times of various existing satellites that are used for wildfire management purposes in Canada: American Terra (dark green), Aqua (blue), Suomi NPP (purple) and Landsat 8 (pink) satellites, and European Sentinel-3 (light green), Sentinel-2 (orange) satellites.
This time lag has dire consequences for teams on the ground fighting forest fires who need that information by the end of each day in order to plan for the next. "During the 2016 fire that ravaged much of Fort McMurray, Alberta, satellite data was downloaded in Ottawa and then sent to Edmonton. By the time it arrived, it was too old to be useful," an article in l'Actualité points out. 
The urgency is such that on May 17, the CSA announced that a satellite, nicknamed WildFireSat, would be built to enhance "Canada's ability to manage wildfires." It is required "for protecting lives and health, as well as our resources, infrastructures and environment," the CSA said. "WildFireSat will monitor all active wildfires in Canada on a daily basis," it said. But far from getting on with the job, we learn that the CSA has been calling for tenders and all that has transpired thus far is that the costs are soaring.
The CSA issued a call for tenders in 2019 to build the WildFireSat at a cost of $31 million. In the words of the online publication SpaceQ, "The WildFireSat mission will now cost at least $170 million and won't launch until 2029 with the design and implementation anticipated to commence in spring 2024."
The contract to build it was awarded to a company called exactEarth, based in Cambridge, Ontario. It was expected to become operational in 2026. ExactEarth was then bought by Spire Global, a company that specializes in building nanosatellites. It is a U.S. firm based in San Francisco, founded in 2012 and now listed on the New York Stock Exchange. The deployment of Spire Global's first two satellites took place in November 2012 in what was to become "the first U.S. Commercial Satellite Deployment from the International Space Station."
For years, scientists in the field of forest management and climate change have been underscoring the need to have a national plan to forecast, prevent and, most importantly, put in place measures to counter the wildfires in the most effective way. How to do so, and how to bring the climate crisis under control, are known. The problem lies with governments whose only fidelity is to narrow private interests and the U.S. war economy. The story of the contract to build the WildFireSat shows how dangerous their warped notion of national security is.
Figure 1a — Trends in area burned on an annual basis (in hundreds of thousands of hectares (ha)) across Canada between 1959 and 2010.
Figure 1b — Trends in the number of large fires (>200 ha) across Canada between 1959 and 2010.
The situation is no different for Quebec (see attached graph).
[Note that these statistics may differ due to incomplete data. More statistics are available in the National Wildland Fire Situation Report.]
3. "Le premier satellite européen détecteur de foudre à l'oeuvre," La Presse, July 3, 2023
(SOPFEU, Government of Canada, Hydro-Québec, Le Devoir, Journal de Montréal, Journal de Québec, La Presse, l'Actualité, Wikipedia. Photos: Canada 350, C. Gusen, AlienorR2)
This article was published in
Number 46 - August 23, 2023