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Arctic wildfires set new record for carbon emissions

Image credit: Marcus Kauffman | Unsplash

Wildfires raging in Arctic regions throughout summer 2020 have put record amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, experts have warned.

Carbon emissions from this year’s wildfires burning in the Arctic Circle have already outstripped 2019’s record levels and are the highest for the region according to data going back to 2003, the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) said.

Scientists from the service, which is run by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) on behalf of the European Commission, monitor wildfire activity across the world.

They have estimated that carbon dioxide emissions from the Arctic Circle from the beginning of the year were 244 million tonnes, an increase of a third over the 181 million tonnes for the whole of 2019.

Most of the increase in wildfires has been in Russia’s Sakha Republic, which falls partly within the Arctic Circle, with millions of acres of land damaged, the scientists said.

Across Eastern Russia as a whole, fires emitted approximately 540 million tonnes of carbon dioxide between June and August, surpassing the previous highest total emissions for the region, seen in 2003, they said.

Elsewhere in the world, a large region of the south-western USA was hit by wildfires due to heatwave conditions, with large plumes of smoke seen moving eastward across the Great Lakes towards the North Atlantic. California also saw the second and third worst fires in the state’s history, the data shows.

Mark Parrington, senior scientist and wildfire expert at CAMS, said: “The Arctic fires burning since middle of June with high activity have already beaten 2019’s record in terms of scale and intensity as reflected in the estimated carbon dioxide emissions.

“We know from climate data provided by our parallel service at ECMWF, the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S), that warmer and drier conditions have been prevalent again this summer.

“Our monitoring is vital in understanding how the scale and intensity of these wildfire events have an impact on the atmosphere in terms of air pollution.”

In August, scientists announced that the Greenland ice sheet is losing its mass at an accelerating rate, making it the single biggest contributor to rising sea levels. In addition, the scientists said the chance that the ice sheet would gain mass again under current typical climate conditions is around 1 per cent.

The rate of ice loss had slowed for a two-year period amid cooler summers and higher snowfall in western Greenland through 2018, but then last year, as warm air flowed northward from lower latitudes, the frozen island experienced a record loss in its ice mass, according to Ingo Sasgen, a geoscientist at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany.

Also contributing to global warming is the release of methane gas from the seafloor. Earlier this week, scientists from Linnaeus University, Sweden, wrote how they observed a massive release of the gas rising from the seafloor in the Southern Hemisphere for the first time.

Meanwhile, at the end of July this year, meteorologists at the Met Office showed that 2019 saw a series of record high temperatures in the UK, as climate change exerts “an increasing impact” on the country.

The Met Office’s annual ‘State of the UK Climate’ review showed how the country continues to warm, with 2019’s average temperature 1.1°C above long-term 1961-1990 levels. The most recent decade has been 0.9°C warmer across the UK than the 1961-1990 average.

2019 has also become infamous for breaking several temperature records, including the hottest temperature ever recorded in the UK, when the thermometer soared to 38.7°C (101.7°F) at Cambridge University Botanic Gardens on 25 July 2019.

In response to the demonstrable climate crisis, the UK Government has taken action to set legally binding environmental targets for air quality, waste reduction, biodiversity and cleaner water. These targets will be introduced in order to underpin the Environment Bill 2020 and future governments will be obliged to stick to them.

In a wider EU context, a think tank suggested in August that it is both technically and economically feasible for EU member states to achieve a 55 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared to 1990.

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