Paul Roundy: El Niño Has Played Larger Role than Climate Change in Alberta Wildfires

ALBANY, N.Y. (May 18, 2016) – With this month’s damaging wildfire continuing to wreak havoc in Northern Alberta, there has been a lot of attention paid to what role climate change is playing.

Paul Roundy
Paul Roundy, of the Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences.

However, University at Albany climate variability expert Paul Roundy believes a powerful El Niño this year may actually be the larger culprit.

Roundy studied historical weather patterns in the region over recent decades. In the month of April, he found little evidence of significant changes since 1950. April’s weather is important because it sets the stage for May. Low humidity and high temperatures favor a strong potential for fire to occur.

“An absence of a warming and drying trend during April suggests little direct contribution from climate change to this fire event,” said Roundy, who is an associate professor of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences.

Instead, he thinks a natural variability associated with unusually strong El Niño events enhanced Alberta’s dry warm conditions in May, and generated the wildfire to begin.

“This year’s El Niño event, in particular, spent most of its lifetime in between the central and east Pacific El Niño extremes, favoring a ridge over the Canadian Rockies and Alberta: an ideal scenario for a low snow pack and warm, dry conditions in the spring,” Roundy said.

As for traditional fire season, Roundy has found warmer weather trends during other times of the year, especially June through August. It suggests that climate change is impacting wildfires overall.

Roundy wrote his analysis in the May 16 edition of The Conversation US, an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community. You can read the full piece here: “Why the effects of 2016 El Niño trumped climate change in the Alberta wildfires.”

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