Jul 19, 2023 - Energy & Environment

Canada wildfires devour land, vault CO2 emissions higher

Annual Canada wildfire carbon emissions
Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service/ECMWF; Chart:Tory Lysik/Axios Visuals

The simultaneous, record-shattering heat in the U.S., Europe and Asia may be getting all the headlines (more on these events below), but hotter and drier-than-average conditions are fueling the disaster unfolding in Canada.

Why it matters: As residents of the Midwest and East Coast have repeatedly learned this summer, Canada's devastating fires affect conditions elsewhere.

  • Multiple rounds of smoke ejected from the massive blazes have caused air quality to deteriorate in some of America's biggest cities.
  • The longer these fires burn — and the typical seasonal peak has not occurred yet — the stronger the climate feedback. That's increasing Canada's carbon emissions, and contributing to climate change.

The big picture: Wildfire season got a jump start with unusually hot weather across western Canada in May.

  • Since then, each of Canada's provinces and territories from the Arctic to the Maritimes have come under the influence of areas of high pressure. Heat domes have slid from west to east and back again, as a repetitive and largely stuck weather pattern dominates North America.
  • So far this season, 27.1 million acres have burned across Canada, and it's unlikely the fires will be extinguished until fall or winter when colder weather and precipitation arrives (this is a burned area larger than the state of Kentucky).
  • Some blazes in Arctic peatlands may overwinter as so-called "zombie fires," smoldering just beneath the surface in organic matter such as mosses, only to emerge in the spring.

Zoom in: The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service tracks wildfire emissions via satellite monitoring.

  • Satellite monitoring does not produce precise measurements, since it involves estimating emissions via a metric known a "fire radiative power," which measures the heat energy emitted from a fire, and other techniques.
  • With data going back to 2003, it provides a reliable comparison of carbon emissions from this fire season so far compared to the past 21 years.
  • According to Mark Parrington, a senior scientist at CAMS, the data shows this year will be "more than double" the previous highest annual total in 2014, with emissions of 249 million tonnes of carbon through July 17.
  • "We have just passed the mid-point of summer and fires in Canada typically peak in late July/August," Parrington tells Axios via email. He noted that the massive wildfires in the Far Eastern Federal District of Russia in 2021 emitted about 290 million tonnes of carbon.
  • This year, Canada is on track to match or top that. In terms of carbon dioxide equivalent, that is equal to about 914 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent so far.

What they're saying: "One of the most striking things this year has been the persistence of fires in multiple provinces and territories at the same time," Parrington said.

Context: Much as is the case in the U.S., wildfires in parts of Canada have burned larger areas over time. A warming climate produces more extreme fire weather conditions in which hot temperatures, high winds and dry conditions overlap.

  • "Our area burned in Canada has doubled since the early 70s. And my colleagues and I have checked this largely but not solely to human-caused climate change," Mike Flannigan, a veteran fire researcher at Thompson Rivers University, told Axios.
  • Land management practices and other factors also play into wildfire trends, Flannigan said in a June interview.
  • At that point, Canada had already surpassed the record for the most acres burned in any season since 1959.

The bottom line: Canada's wildfires are yet another warning sign of how quickly and brazenly climate change is manifesting itself this summer.

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