NEW DELHI: For the second year in a row, the Arctic has witnessed the worst fire season ever, with massive wildfires pouring more than one-third more carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere than last year. According to Europe’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service or CAMS, fires raging across the Arctic Circle have released 244 million tons of CO2 for the first six months of the year, compared to 181 million tons for the whole of 2019.
Mark Parrington, senior scientist, CAMS, said that it is known for a long time that at northern latitudes, the rate of change of climate and temperature has been two to three times faster than the global average. He added that the current situation is a symptom of that rapid rate of change.
The Arctic’s rapid warming has occurred through thermal wave records in the last couple of months. Satellites have also shown that sea ice has shrunk more than any other July in history. Thinner ice in Arctic waters meant that the Northern Sea Route was opened earlier this year than usual. The route is used during the summer months to ship gas, oil, and metals from northern Russia to China.
As per the latest data by the Global Carbon Project, in just six months, emissions from Arctic fires, some of which are still burning, were so high that the region emitted the equivalent of what countries like Spain, Malaysia, Egypt or Ukraine emitted in 2018 from burning fossil fuels.
According to CAMS, the majority of fires were in the Sakha Republic of Russia, while in Northern Canada and Alaska, fires were reduced in comparison to last year. Clouds of smoke from Siberian fires spread across thousands of kilometers, affecting the equivalent of more than a third of Canada.
Scientists suspect the so-called “zombie fires,” which emerged last year, may have been smoldering underground during winter months and resurrected when a heatwave struck the area during the spring. Parrington said that once these fires begin in that part of the world, they can continue for a long time and something similar happening next year won’t be a sight of surprise for him.
Western US fires continue to be active, and CAMS data show that fire intensity is much higher than the 2003-2019 average in Colorado for most of August. In California, as per date, fire emissions peaked during the second half of the month, given that two of the state’s largest-ever fires began in late August.
However, fires that occur in the tropics have been the key driver for global emissions from wildfires. In Southeast Asia, a wetter-than-usual dry season means fires in Indonesia could be fewer this year. Guido Van der Werf, scientist, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, who also monitors carbon emissions from wildfires, said that “all in all, we see some regional anomalies but on a global scale so far, things are not as anomalous as last year.” Werf added that fire emissions from the Brazilian Amazon this year are comparable to last. But the burning season is still ongoing in that part of the world so fire emissions will depend on how the remainder of the fire season in the Amazon develops.