Quebec's smoky warning

July 09, 2002

WAS THAT A whiff of global warming we were breathing in on Sunday? Huge tracts of forest are burning just east of Hudson Bay in Quebec, and although Americans would normally be content to ignore a natural disaster so remote and so far away, this time it was impossible because a freakish weather pattern brought the smoke southward as far as Baltimore - and even beyond.

As of yesterday, the amount of land that had been burned in Quebec was about the same as in Arizona in June - something over 400,000 acres. Villages have been abandoned, and 500,000 people have had their power cut off. A shift in the wind is expected to blow the smoke eastward, out over the Atlantic and away from the United States, but the flames are still very much out of control.

The immediate cause is lightning. But this has been an unusual year in Quebec and throughout what might be called the Near North. Below the tundra, the weather has been warmer and drier than in any year since records were first kept. In Alaska, the warm spell marks a 7-degree increase in the average temperature in just 30 years. It might not be a harbinger of climate change. But if it is - if it in fact demonstrates the first truly dramatic effects of global warming - then today's Canadian fires are just a foretaste of what might come.

Here it is only the first week of July and, already, twice as much land has been burned in Quebec this year as would be expected in an entire normal year. The spruce forests that are in flames are stressed already - they are about as far north as trees can grow in that part of the world. The soil is poor and after a fire is particularly subject to erosion. It could take centuries for the forest to recover.

Experts have predicted that global warming will mean a northward advance of the forest line and, in Quebec, heavier precipitation. Maybe that will come, or maybe they are wrong. What we are witnessing today, in any case, is unprecedentedly warm and dry weather afflicting a fragile - and flammable - ecosystem.

And now the fires themselves are pumping even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Is there a lesson in all this for Washington? Several, in fact, but consider just one. That was Canadian smoke we were breathing Sunday. Their pollution does not respect national boundaries, and neither does ours. The United States is the chief producer of greenhouse gases; the world will live with the consequences.

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