Edmonton

Fort McMurray wildfire ash reaches all the way to Spain

Ash and soot from the Fort McMurray wildfire has drifted all the way to Europe and could speed the melting of Greenland's ice sheet, says a fire ecologist.

Fallout from the fire could leave large swaths of Greenland's ice sheet at risk of increased melting

The smoke plume (bottom) from large wildfires in and around Fort McMurray is visible in a picture taken by NASA astronaut Jeff Williams from the International Space Station on May 11. (NASA/Reuters )

Ash and soot from the Fort McMurray wildfire has drifted all the way to Europe and could speed the melting of Greenland's ice sheet, says a fire ecologist.

NASA satellite images, captured earlier this week, show blue streaks — representing dust and soot in the atmosphere — swirling over Spain and the U.K.

Although the hazy conditions are quite mild in Europe, fire ecologist Robert Gray said fallout from the fire could be of greater concern for Greenland.

The massive plume from the fire could leave large swaths of Greenland's 1,710,000 square kilometre ice sheet at risk of increased melting.

The landscape of ice, which is already at risk from rising global temperatures, is more vulnerable to melting if it becomes darkened by soot, said Gray, who runs his own consulting company in B.C.

"There will be a lot of soot deposited on the ice shelf from this fire. And it speeds up the warming process quite significantly."

"Simple white reflects heat and light away, but once you have a black body — imagine a tarmac-black asphalt on a really hot day and how much it absorbs heat," he said.

The massive plume of particulates from the fire would have travelled more than 12,000 metres into the atmosphere, before the haze was carried east along the jet stream.

"When that column started to build over a couple of those really key days, it got the smoke way, way up into the atmosphere and it basically gets stuck in the jet stream," Gray said.

"The jet stream will grab it, and like a river it will carry it down and take it as far as the volume goes. It could circumnavigate the globe if there's enough of it."

A NASA satellite image from May 22 illustrating the aerosol index shows plumes of soot and ash, some of it from Fort McMurray, skirting around Europe. (NASA )
The bulk of the smoke would have been produced when the fire was most powerful, three weeks ago, when it grew many times in size and began devouring parts of Fort McMurray, forcing 90,000 people to flee for their lives. 

Before the plume travelled east across the Atlantic Ocean, Gray said, it also travelled south, hitting large swaths of the southern United States.

"By the time it reaches Spain and Britain, it's quite diluted," he said.

"It may appear to be kind of a humid day, where you see kind of blurred landscapes around you because it's kind of unclear. But it would not look anything like Edmonton did, or Fort Mac did a couple days ago."