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Climate Change Is Turning the World’s Bogs into Tinder Boxes

Burns Bog in BC is on fire, prompting evacuations in the area.

Burns Bog is on fire. Just before noon on Sunday, a blaze broke out in the large peat bog, which is outside of Vancouver, and quickly spread. Firefighters have been struggling since to contain the fire, calling it "unpredictable." On Monday, smoke from the blaze could be seen—and smelled—in downtown Vancouver. Some roads were closed, and nearby areas were evacuated. Officials say it could be a full week until this wildfire, just the latest to ravage western Canada this year, is extinguished.

We don't yet know what started the Burns Bog fire. But we do know that climate change is partly to blame, as it has been with other wildfires in the western provinces, like the one that ripped through Fort MacMurray in May. That's because hot, dry weather creates conditions that are ripe for wildfire—and this, coupled with human activity, is turning peat bogs everywhere into "fuel-packed fire hazards," according to researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., who've published a new study in Scientific Reports.

Peat bogs are packed with dead moss, overlaid with living green stuff. Aside from hosting a diversity of wildlife, they're an excellent place to sequester carbon: in fact, they hold more carbon than all the world's rainforests, the McMaster team says.

"Certain types of mosses are quite resistant to burning, because they hold so much water that a normal fire doesn't have enough energy to ignite them, or just singes the surface," James Michael Waddington of McMaster, one of the study authors, told me. But when that moss cap is removed and peat begins to dry out, they become vulnerable to flames.

They're particularly nasty when they catch fire. Peat bog fires are the largest in the world in terms of carbon output, along with coal blazes. They can burn for a long time, as the fire burrows down into the ground, where it can overwinter like a hibernating bear. That's partly what's been so challenging about the situation in Burns Bog: the fire can move underground.

This type of fire doesn't so much blaze as smoulder, putting up great walls of thick, potentially deadly smoke. "The air quality issue is big," Waddington said. He pointed to Moscow as an example: in 2010, peat fires broke out around the city, and about 3,000 people died from the smoke.

In the new study, Waddington and his collaborators, led by Gustaf Granath, now based in Uppsala, Sweden, looked at the impacts of the human use of peat bogs, including mining peat for horticultural uses, draining it for construction or agriculture, and so forth. (Burns Bog, which has caught fire before, has been used for peat mining and farming.)

"When you take the land use impact and you put on top of it higher, extreme drying conditions we see under climate change scenarios, it becomes much more vulnerable to burning," he said.

They did find reason to be hopeful: certain mitigation efforts can potentially help curb the danger of peat bog fires, like re-wetting the land and encouraging moss to regrow. "These methods are not cheap," Waddington acknowledged, but neither is fighting a long-smouldering fire, or dealing with the fallout (including a negative impact on air quality) that comes after it's finally under control. With climate change creating more pressure, managing all this will be crucial.

As for Burns Bog, as of 9 am Pacific time, about 10 percent of the blaze had been contained, with estimates putting it at 50-to-70 hectares in size. Once the fire is quelled, officials will be meeting with a scientific advisory panel to talk about how to help the bog recover.

Managing our peat bogs has never been more important—not just to preserve the species that rely on them, and to keep all that carbon in the ground, but to save ourselves from what happens when they catch flame.