Carbon Dioxide Emissions from Wildfires Now Highest Ever

ON 10/01/2021 AT 10:39 PM

While much of the world’s governments are playing positioning games arguing about the precise temperature of the planet and making empty promises about cutting carbon emissions, a new report reveals wildfires are making things even worse.

Firefighters fighting the Dixie Fire wildfires

Firefighters working to put out the record-setting Dixie Fire in Northern California. Photo: The Orange County Fire Authority, via Twitter

One of the climate feedback loops or tipping points for catastrophic runaway climate change is increased forest fires and except for the Antarctic, there is no major land mass in the world which has been spared from devastating wildfires every year for the past several years. Triggered by drought and high temperatures thanks to the climate crisis, fires in Europe, Australia, the western United States, and Siberia at the edge of the Arctic have burned upwards of months at a time year-after-year.

Those wildfires represent a now self-sustaining secondary effect of the global climate crisis. It is also one that is big enough that we can no longer think the carbon emitted by these fires as separate from the rest of the carbon emissions produced by all other direct anthropogenic (human-related) causes.

The International Energy Agency, an intragovernmental organization which monitors energy use and emissions, estimated that in 2020 over 30 billion tons of CO2 were dumped into the atmosphere from all sources. That is down slightly from original projections, primarily because of a small dip in emissions overall because of all the lock downs related to the pandemic in 2020.

Total atmospheric CO2 Emissions Over Time

Total atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions over time, by country contribution, since well before the Industrial Revolution. Photo: Our World In Data

While that is staggering on its own, a new report from the EU-based Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Services (CAMS) revealed that in July 2021 an estimated 1.26 billion tons of CO2 were released just by wildfires alone. Of that, the report explains, “more than half of the carbon dioxide was attributed to fires in North America and Siberia.”

In August, fires accounted for 1.39 billion tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere.

Both July and August 2021 represented record-setting months for wildfire-related CO2 emissions.

“Not only large parts of the Northern Hemisphere were affected during this year’s boreal fire season, but the number of fires, their persistence, and intensity were remarkable,” the report continued.

The data which backs up these measurements was gathered via satellite by monitoring total fire radiative power attributable wildfires and biomass burning from space via the Global Fire Assimilation System (GFAS). It isolates this data using, as CAMS explains, “satellite observations of active fires in near-real-time.”

What the CAMS data shows is that on that average basis, wildfires and biomass burning in July and August likely contributed to perhaps slightly less than half of all carbon dioxide emissions on the planet.

The really bad news is that category of carbon emissions will only get worse as drought and heat conditions continue to spread worldwide. There is for now at least, short of massive cloud-seeding or other weather modification technology to “wet down” potential fire-prone areas in advance or creating a giant fire-snuffing blanket to throw over the world’s forests, nothing which can be done to stop this as a major force in continuing the relentless global heating of the planet.

Among the more significant contributors to the wildfire/biomass CO2 output this year were:

In the Siberian Arctic:

Thanks to the presence of higher temperatures and continued depletion of soil moisture in this area, wildfires particularly located in the Sakha Republic have been much larger and lasted longer than in past years. As the report explains, “the daily intensity of the fires reached above average levels since June and only began to subside in early September.”  

Data gathered by CAMS said Russian contributions to wildfire emissions this summer totaled some 970 million tons of CO2, with 806 million tons of that coming just from the Sakha Republic and Chukotka. The Arctic outside of Russia also released 66 million tons of CO2 between June and August this year.

Wildfire emissions and radiative power data for Summer of 2021

Left: Estimated carbon emissions for the period June-July-August and the years 2003-2021 for Sakha Republic in Russia. Right: Daily Fire Radiative Power, a measure for heat output, for fires in the Sakha Republic 2021. Photo: Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service/ECMWF

In North America:  

Starting in late June and early July, and currently continuing, severe fires on a previously unseen scale have wiped out large forest regions in California, the Pacific Northwest, and several provinces in Canada. Of special note for their persistence and intensity in this area this summer were the Dixie Fire in Northern California and Oregon’s Bootleg Fire. The Dixie Fire, the largest in the U.S. this summer and the second largest ever in California, began on July 13 and as of September 20 had destroyed 963,195 acres by the time it was mostly contained. The Bootleg Fire, which ran from July 6 through August 15, burned some 413,717 acres before it was finally put out. In both cases record-setting high temperatures and widespread drought, along with powerful winds which kept the fires moving, were behind why North America was so strongly affected by wildfires this year.

Summer 2021 California Wildfire Emissions and Radiative Power

Left: Estimated carbon emissions for the period June-July-August for Western USA in the years 2003-2021. Right: Daily total Fire Radiative Power for Western USA in 2021. Photo: Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service/ECMWF

Around the perimeter of the Mediterranean Sea:  

While northern Europe made headlines earlier this summer primarily because of widespread flooding mostly in Germany and Belgium, this year southeast Europe suffered from an unusual pattern of extended heatwaves. That yielded the highest daily fire intensities in Turkey over four times as intense as anything previously recorded there. Powerful wildfires from the same root cause also spread rapidly throughout other coastal regions surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, including in Greece, Italy, Albania, North Macedonia, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.

These fires were especially concerning as dangerous PM2.5 smoke particle concentrations spread throughout the region, forcing people indoors to avoid severe health problems. Wildlife were unable to escape the smoke.

GEFF fire danger forecasts initialized on 31 July 2021, showing 'very extreme' (purple shading) around the Mediterranean valid for 7 August. Credit: EFFIS Photo: The European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS)

Beyond the numbers, the unavoidable conclusion of this year’s fire season is that we are now firmly in a time some are already referring to as the “Pyrocene” – the age of wildfires. It is a time which will produce continued carbon emissions into the atmosphere for decades to come, and keep causing temperatures to rise on the planet.

That will happen regardless of what human beings may finally figure out to cut its own direct carbon dioxide emissions contributions, perhaps by halting the use of coal for power production, eliminating all fossil fuel use in transportation, or eliminating all consumption of animals for food – a major contribution to carbon output in agriculture.