Wildfires continue to dump millions of tonnes of carbon into atmosphere – CAMS

The European Union’s weather and atmosphere organisation has warned that while global wildfires have been reducing, there is a growing threat in areas which had previously been viewed as benign.

According to estimates from the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), as of 10 December, global wildfires and vegetation fires in 2022 had generated around 1,455 megatonnes of carbon emissions.

Several regions, particularly in parts of Europe and South America, saw the highest estimated emissions in the last 20 years during their peak wildfire seasons; France and Spain were two of the worst affected European countries, with emissions at their highest level since at least 2003. CAMS said it has been consistently monitoring the wildfire situation, providing data via its Global Fire Assimilation System (GFAS).

Wildfire activity around the world generally follows seasonal patterns, with the Northern Hemisphere typically seeing activity between May and October, peaking in July and August, which are generally the hottest and driest months of the year. This year was no exception – the length and intensity of the heatwaves to hit Europe during the summer, combined with the general dry conditions on the continent during 2022, contributed to record-breaking wildfire activity.

“Our monitoring of wildfires and vegetation fires in general shows that, at the global scale, emissions continue to decline in relation to land use changes and declining savanna fires in the tropics. However, we also continue to identify and monitor significantly increased fire emissions in different parts of the world, where hotter and drier conditions are leading to increased flammability of the vegetation”, said CAMS senior scientist Mark Parrington.

He added the organisation has reported throughout the year on some intense and unusual wildfire activity for various regions of the world.

According to CAMS GFAS, total wildfire emissions from the European Union plus the United Kingdom from 1 June to 31 August 2022 are estimated at 6.4 megatonnes of carbon, the highest level for these months since the summer of 2007.

The CAMS data is largely aligned with the findings of the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS), which put the total cumulative burnt area in the EU from the start of the year to 19 November at over 785,000 hectares, more than double the average of just over 317,000 hectares in 2006-2021, with total carbon emissions for 2022 estimated at 9 megatonnes, compared with a 2003-2021 average of 6.75 megatonnes.

Spain and France were particularly hard hit this year. CAMS data showed both Spain and France recording the highest carbon emissions from June to August in the 20 years of the GFAS dataset, which began in 2003.

“This had a major impact on air quality in the region. For example, the air quality impact of the large blaze that erupted in southwestern France during August’s heatwave was clearly reflected in the daily maximum surface concentration of coarse particulate matter (PM10) from the CAMS regional ensemble forecast for 12 August 2022,” the organisation explained.

For North America, early June saw a growing number of fires developing in Alaska, including within the Arctic Circle, which led to some smoke transport across the Beaufort Sea towards the Arctic Ocean. FRP was particularly high during the start of the month, well above the GFAS mean for 2003-2021, and fire emission estimates for the month as a whole were the third highest in the GFAS dataset, after 2004 and 2015.

Alaska’s significant fire activity continued into August. In total, Alaska experienced 594 wildfires this year (up to 3 November) with over 3 million hectares burnt, according to data from the Bureau of Land Management’s Alaska Fire Service. There was also significant wildfire activity in Canada, where the Northwest Territories saw 257 fires this year with 686,595 hectares affected, and Yukon, which has 276 wildfires to date in 2022, with 174,104 hectares burnt.

Despite a number of large, devastating wildfires in the western United States in August, daily total FRP and seasonal total emissions were low, compared to the devastating fires of 2021. In California, Oregon, Washington State and Idaho, and in the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia in Canada, GFAS records high FRP levels at the start of September, falling to near or below average towards the end of month. In general, although wildfires continued throughout September, daily total FRP and emissions were below average. However, large wildfires continued to burn in western Canada in October and early November, with above average daily total FRP in British Columbia in early November.

“The CAMS GFAS data is a highly valuable asset and resource for those dealing with mitigation and prevention of the effects of wildfires. Our data on fire radiative power, estimated emissions and air pollution could be used by governments, private organizations and individuals to improve how they assess the challenges presented by wildfires and the actions they decide to take”, Parrington said.