Mac prof warns bog fires to become more common, Wainfleet keeps burning

Mac prof warns bog fires to become more common, Wainfleet keeps burning 

8 July 2016

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Canada — The 6.4-hectare fire smouldering at the biggest bog in Southern Ontario is a snapshot of what’s in store for the world’s peatlands.

“These conditions are only going to get worse under climate change,” said Mac professor of Geography and Earth Sciences, Michael Waddington, also warning that human alterations of bogs is an enormous contributing factor to bog fires seen across the world.

A bog is a wetland with a layer of more than 40 cm of peat moss — the decayed remains of the moss that grows on the surface (sphagnum). Bogs, which are rare in Southern Ontario and abundant in the Boreal forest, have been mined — primarily for fuel and its value as a soil amendment — and drained the world over.

While bogs house important species at risk, like the Massassauga rattlesnake, their role as a climate regulator, storing vast amounts of CO2, is critical, said Waddington.

“As peatlands dry they will burn deeper and because there can be several tens of centimetres or several metres of peat, the fuel is essentially unlimited,” said Waddington. Like forests, bogs need low-severity burning to keep trees from growing too large, but a healthy bog generally only experiences surface singing during a fire.

At Fort McMurray, a drained bog near the city added significant fuel to that fire, said Waddington. In 2010, a bog fire near Moscow “caused air quality so poor it is estimated that over 3,000 people died.”

“(Dry bog fires) can be very expensive to put out, cause the loss of lots of CO2 to the atmosphere and the air quality can be very poor,” said Waddington.

The 1,500-hectare bog at Wainfleet burned as recently as 2012, which is when Waddington and project leader Gustaf Granath began their research. That time about 20 hectares of the bog burned for three to four weeks.

The difficulty with these fires is that they travel underground, requiring significant amounts of water, said Waddington. When they studied the 2012 bog fire, it had burned 60 to 70 cm down into the peat.

This past June was the driest since 2012 in Hamilton, according to Environment Canada, prompting a low water alert from the Hamilton Conservation Authority. Both Burlington and the Town of Grimsby have instituted burn bans due to the dry weather.

Ministry of Natural Resources Fire Information Officer, Isabelle Chenard said “the perimeter is on its way to being established,” for the Wainfleet bog fire, which grew from one to 6.4 hectares Wednesday. The fire had not grown Thursday, but hot and windy conditions could cause difficulties going forward.

The Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority said tankers have delivered more than 48,000 gallons of water to help fight the blaze Wednesday and Thursday. The cause of the fire is not yet known, though the NPCA confirmed lightning did strike inside the bog on June 20.

Globally, 21 million hectares of peatlands have been drained or managed by human contact, said Waddington, posing a significant fire hazard. Canada’s peatlands alone store about 200 gigatons of peat.

With the expectation that the situation will worsen with climate change, Waddington argues that restoration becomes all the more critical.

“The good news of our research is that we demonstrate that rewetting peatland reduces the fire risk,” said Waddington

Restoration of bogs comes essentially in two parts: blocking drainage ditches and building berms to hold more water, and adding sphagnum moss to the surface to kickstart moss growth.

The Wainfleet bog still suffers from the effects of decades of mining, but partial restoration of the bog has revealed positive results.

“When we studied the 2012 fire we found the areas where moss had started to grow on the surface again had minimal fire severity.”

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