Aug 23, 2023 - Energy & Environment

Canada's wildfire emissions skyrocket as fires spread

Cumulative daily wildfire carbon emissions in Canada
Data: ECMWF, Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service; Note: Mean calculated from 2003-2022 data; Chart: Axios Visuals

Canada's worst wildfire season on record continues, with at least 1,040 blazes still burning. The most dangerous fires, in terms of threatened populations, are in the Northwest Territories and British Columbia.

Threat level: In addition to threatening property and lives, the wildfires have been emitting ever growing amounts of greenhouse gases and other harmful emissions, far surpassing past seasons in the era of satellite monitoring.

The big picture: So far this season, some 59,230 square miles have burned across the country in a national disaster worsened by climate change. The affected area is larger than the state of Iowa.

  • Recently, large communities have been evacuated, and the province of British Columbia has declared a state of emergency and military deployed.
  • With the blazes — which began unusually early amid a dry and hot spring in western Canada — have come ever-climbing amounts of carbon dioxide, soot, methane and other harmful emissions.
  • The carbon emissions amount to more than double the previous Canadian annual total estimated fire emissions record. According to estimates from the Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service, part of the European Center for Medium Range Weather Forecasts, the fires have spewed about 355 megatonnes of carbon through Aug. 21.

The intrigue: Meanwhile, a new study published Tuesday found a link to human-caused climate change; weather conditions in Quebec between May and July made the wildfires more likely and intense than in a preindustrial climate.

  • These fires sent unhealthy concentrations of smoke pouring into the U.S.
  • The study showed that the hot, dry weather conditions were at least twice as likely to occur today's climate, compared to a world without added amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels.
  • The scientists also found that climate change made the cumulative fire weather conditions up to 50% more intense than in a preindustrial climate. The research, like many other climate attribution studies, has not yet been peer reviewed, but followed peer-reviewed methods.

What they're saying: According to Mark Parrington, a senior scientist at CAMS, this is now the 17th week of significant wildfires in Canada. "It is remarkable how large-scale and persistent the wildfires have been across the country," he told Axios via email.

  • He noted that the high latitude wildfires, including in the Northwest Territories, have been contributing the most to Canada's fire-related carbon emissions.

Merritt Turetsky, a carbon cycle scientist at the University of Colorado, told Axios the relationship between drought and wildfires is a "vicious cycle."

  • "Unless there is a lot more precipitation to compensate for warmer temperatures, we expect warming to be associated with drier vegetation and soils," she said via email from Greenland, where she is doing field research.
  • "Drier fuels not only ignite more readily, but support faster-spreading and deeper-burning fires. This releases greenhouse gases" including CO2 and methane. "Of course, those GHGs wind up in the atmosphere, cause more warming and we begin our vicious cycle."
  • "The best way to break this cycle of increasing flammability in the boreal and Arctic regions is to reduce emissions and decarbonize society. We can and should use "good fire" to combat severe burning" she noted, referring to lighter-burning fires.
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