August 13, 1998
“Of Disasters, Ecological and Otherwise....”
For an instant, my eyes and throat burned. I couldn’t breath. Ahead of us, dusky shapes and shadows appeared and disappeared into the sickly yellow vapour that clung to the ground. It was otherworldly, like driving on another planet where objects and animals seemed to be tantalizingly familiar, yet clearly alien.
In reality, it was St. Albert early last Monday afternoon. And while some might say that central Alberta is otherworldly at the best of times, as far as air quality was concerned, this was not the best of times.
Almost one hundred forest fires were started in northern Alberta by lightning strikes over last weekend. Two-thirds are still out of control. A large number of them are in the Great Slave Lake area, 300 km to the north of us. On Monday, the smoke rolled down the prairie and over top of us.
Bernie and I went into town on some errands Monday morning. We could see the smoke in the sky. The sun was getting duller and fainter, as if someone had turned its power down to save on the electric bill. The horizon crept closer and closer still. Billowing clouds of yellow smoke screen were slowly entrapping us.
I felt for a moment like I was in a Stephen King novel, as if the haze were alive and tracking me, hungry to devour me in some horrific, bloodcurdling and no doubt painful manner. Or maybe it was an acid rain cloud, one that would slowly melt all the flesh from my bones as it released its poison precipitation, a single excruciating drop at a time. Or maybe it was a biological weapons experiment gone horribly wrong, and I would undergo a terrible mutation into a strange, half-witted, man-beast, with a bad haircut, a double-vested tweed jacket, and an insatiable and insane desire to vote Reform. I quickly realized this was a foolish notion, as a quick sniff of the air revealed the unmistakable bouquet of burning wood. It was forest fire smoke – the worst it could do would be suffocate me, that’s all.
As we headed back to the farm in the early afternoon, the smoke thickened noticeably, and by the time we reached St. Albert, we couldn’t see more than 30 metres ahead of us. Visibility is normally anywhere from 8 to 12 km in this country, but the shroud of haze that descended from the north made us almost blind. It really was as if we were in an alien landscape. Landmarks you relied upon were either no longer visible or no longer recognizable. Pedestrians became phantoms, slipping in and out of the smog as easily as ghosts might trade dimensions.
As we left St. Albert behind us, the smoke thinned out somewhat. By the time we reached the farm, visibility was up to three or four km. (It took another 48 hours for the smoke to clear – pun intended.) The only upside was that the temperature remained relatively cool, around 25c. If it had been the 32c – 34c we were getting the previous week, we really would have been in a nightmare.
As it is, the heat has done enough damage. The garden has just about run its course and given up nearly its last produce – about five weeks early, says Bernie. The heat wave caused the vegetables that had been nurtured for months to go from nearly ready to over ripe and spoiled, seemingly in an instant while we were having a lunch break.
And it’s not just me complaining about the heat. Last month, July 1998, was the second hottest July on record here in the Edmonton area, with an average temperature of 24.5c. (The record was set in 1930 in the middle of the Depression: 27.9c.) Since July 16, nearly a month ago, the daily high temperature has dropped below 25c on only three days.
And this is not a local phenomenon. France and England are suffering through their hottest summers ever at 37c. In Cyprus temperatures have hit 43c, in Palestine they’ve climbed to 42c. Jordan is sweltering under a blazing 48c (that’s 118 using the old Fahrenheit scale). Worldwide, this past month was the hottest month ever recorded. Period. Since man has taken its temperature, the earth’s never been hotter. The earth’s average temperature was 16.5c, or 0.7c above normal. And a single degree rise in temperature on a global scale is not something to be taken lightly. A permanent temperature increase even on this scale is a disaster of mammoth proportions.
As the earth’s temperature rises, the summers will cook us alive. The greenhouse effect will keep smog and pollutants fixed to the ground, and the air will become thick and dirty and unbearable.
Is this further evidence of global warming, or just the fluke of a La Niña summer? It makes one pause about the future. Bernie, for instance, is seriously reconsidering what crops to sow next year. He’s musing about watermelons. They normally don’t grow here because it’s not warm enough, but maybe in a year or two, it will be.
For us unlucky folks here around Edmonton the last two weeks, it may have been a sulfurous taste of the future.
For us, the future is now.