Canada is experiencing its worst ever year for wildfires, with carbon emissions from blazes already double the previous annual record, according to the European Union’s Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service.
Carbon emissions from wildfires between January and the end of July this year are already nearing 300 megatonnes of carbon dioxide, far outstripping the annual record of 138 megatonnes set in 2014.
Hot, dry weather in May and June delivered the dry soils and vegetation needed for a severe wildfire season this year, says Mark Parrington at Copernicus.
The first serious fires broke out in May in the Canadian province of Alberta, and have since burned constantly throughout the country, hitting almost every province and forcing tens of thousands of people to evacuate from their homes. More than 120,000 square kilometres of land have been burned so far this year, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre.
The huge scale of the fires has led to record-breaking carbon emissions, says Parrington. Copernicus uses satellite observations of fire radiative power, a measure of the heat and intensity of active fires, to estimate the emissions. “When there’s nine provinces at a time with really large-scale fires, that’s something we certainly haven’t seen in the 20 years that we have data for,” he says.
Alongside their climate impact, the fires will also be spewing out air pollutants such as particulate matter, reducing air quality. In June, smoke from fires in Quebec engulfed parts of the north-eastern US, including New York, in thick smog.
Fires are still burning across Canada, including in the Arctic circle, Copernicus announced this week, potentially fuelled by warmer temperatures in the region caused by climate change. Total emissions from the wildfires are therefore expected to keep climbing, at least for a few more weeks.