Copernicus Report: Did 2019 really bring us an unusual number of wildfires?
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Update: Between 1 January and 30 November 2019, approximately 6,735 megatons of CO2 have been released into the atmosphere from wildfires around the world. Not, as (previously) stated, 6,375 megatons.
With heightened media attention on the unprecedented Arctic wildfires this summer followed by the Amazonian fires in autumn, concerns about Earth being ‘on fire’ are rising. But although some regions have indeed seen exceptionally intense wildfires emitting lots of pollution, some – for example Europe and southern tropical Africa – have actually seen less fire activity than they did earlier this century.
The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS*) uses satellite observations of Earth to continuously monitor wildfire activity worldwide, compare it to the 2003–2018 average values, and provide daily estimates of the pollution emitted. This article highlights the fire activity that stood out from CAMS monitoring during 2019.
In the first weeks of 2019, record-breaking dry and warm conditions in Australia contributed to wildfires across the region. CAMS observed that bushfire activity in the country was many times higher than the January average for the previous sixteen years. The aerosol forecasts from January also showed large amounts of smoke being emitted by fires in Pakistan, India and Western China.
In February, CAMS forecast that wildfires in Tasmania and New Zealand would release high levels of carbon monoxide. CAMS also saw higher-than-usual fire activity in northern Spain and southern France, and subsequently predicted inflated levels of particulate matter in the air over these regions.
Notable wildfire activity in Europe continued until the end of February, especially in the north of the United Kingdom, as well as in Portugal and south-eastern Europe. However overall Europe experienced fewer fires during 2019 than typically seen during the period 2003–2018.
Wildfires in France in February 2019
Intensity of wildfires in France in February 2019 (red) compared to the 2003–2018 average (grey).
March saw increasing activity as the Asian fire season began. Early in the month, fires in south-eastern Asia, north-eastern China and south-eastern Russia gave rise to high levels of aerosol particles in the air over East Asia. In mid-March, CAMS forecast high levels of air pollution across south-eastern Asia, particularly Laos and Thailand, resulting from intense wildfire activity. However, the fire intensity in upper Southeast Asian countries for March 2019 was overall lower than the 2003–2018 average.
Intense fire activity in Asia resumed in May – notably in Nepal and northern India – resulting in large amounts of particulate air pollution across the Himalayan foothills. Also in May, wildfires in Central America produced a lot of smoke that CAMS forecast to affect Mexico City and spread across the Gulf of Mexico.
The fire season began for northern latitudes in late May, with thousands of square kilometres burned in northern Alberta, Canada. CAMS monitored the huge amount of smoke emitted by these fires that was at one point carried across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. Smoke is frequently transported long distances by the wind; in early June, CAMS predicted that smoke from fires in Russia would cross the Arctic Ocean to reach Alaska.
CAMS forecast of the path of smoke from the Alberta wildfires.
June 2019 saw the start of unprecedented wildfire activity in Siberia and the Arctic Circle. The region experienced many uncommonly large and long-lived wildfires that emitted 50 megatonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere during the month. The fires spewed a cloud of soot and smoke larger than the EU, and CAMS predicted how pollution travelled around the world to affect global air quality.
In July, wildfires became more widespread around the Arctic – particularly in Siberia, Alaska and Greenland – emitting 79 megatonnes of carbon dioxide in one month alone. As is often the case with wildfires, the Arctic fires could be linked to drought conditions, with notable activity occurring in locations with low rainfall and dry soil. Information on these variables is provided by CAMS’ partner service, the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S), and can be used to help manage wildfire risk.
Fires raged across South America from spring to autumn. In March, fire activity was especially striking in Colombia, Venezuela and Northern Brazil. Then in August, fires flared up in the Brazilian states of Amazonas and Rondônia, which CAMS observed to affect air quality across the whole of South America.
It is common to see fires across Amazonia in August after the region’s dry season, and although fires in Amazonas released more carbon dioxide than in any other year since 2003, and emissions from fires across the whole of Brazilian Amazonia have this year been the highest since 2010, they emitted a relatively small amount of the pollutant compared to the first decade of this century.
Locations of fires in South America in August 2019
In September, fires tore across Indonesia, burning thousands of acres of land and resulting in a toxic haze covering the country. Although fires are common in Indonesia, especially towards the end of the country’s April to October dry season, CAMS observed that the activity was well above the 2003–2018 average and in total resulted in more than 708 megatonnes of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere. This September the daily total estimated carbon dioxide emissions were comparable to those in the El Niño year of 2015, due to drier than average conditions in Sumatra and Kalimantan.
The close of 2019 sees us coming full circle back into the southern summer, with intense fires again raging in Australia. Since fires flared up in New South Wales and Queensland in September, CAMS has been closely monitoring their development and the resulting smoke transport across the southern Pacific Ocean reaching as far as South America. Although the fires were unusual in number and intensity, especially in the north-eastern parts of New South Wales, up to the end of November fire activity in Australia overall was relatively low compared to previous autumns.
Carbon dioxide release by wildfires in 2019
In total, 6,735 megatonnes of carbon dioxide were released into the atmosphere by wildfires between 1 January and 30 November 2019. This value fits with the gradual declining trend in global total fire emissions since 2003, related to changing land management practices and use of fire in the tropics.
“Although fire activity overall has been fairly average in the global sense for 2019, compared to previous years, there have several instances of unusual intense activity in certain regions, including places with regular fire seasons, which has been devastating,” concludes CAMS Senior Scientist Mark Parrington. “Our monitoring is important for raising awareness of the context and wider-scale impacts of wildfires and their smoke emissions so that organisations, businesses and individuals can be informed and plan against the potential effects of air pollution.”
*CAMS and its partner service the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) are implemented by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts on behalf of the EU.
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