This is Canada’s worst wildfire season on record, researchers say
The Washington Post September 14, 2023
Canada is experiencing its worst wildfire season on record in terms of total carbon emissions and land area burned, the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service announced Wednesday.
This year’s fires have tripled the record high for carbon emissions from previous Canadian wildfire seasons and have burned the largest land area ever observed in the country, Copernicus said. They have forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate, created dangerous air quality across Canada and large portions of the United States, and spread smoke plumes all the way to Europe.
The record-breaking fire season in Canada has coincided with severe wildfires in several regions around the world, including devastating blazes in Greece and Hawaii. While most wildfires are sparked by lightning or accidentally by humans, scientists say human-caused climate change is making larger fires more likely in more places.
Wildfires have raged across Canada this year from coast to coast. Last month, thousands of people in British Columbia and the Northwest Territories were urged to evacuate, including all 20,000 residents of Yellowknife and many in Kelowna, as flames threatened homes and strained firefighting services. Wildfires also disrupted oil and gas production in Canada over the summer.
Canadian fires have emitted almost 410 megatons of carbon this year, compared with a previous record of 138 megatons in 2014, accounting for more than a quarter of the year’s global wildfire emissions to date, Copernicus said. With more than 900 fires still burning, emissions “may keep increasing although the rate of increase seems to be leveling off,” Copernicus said.
Fires have burned 42.7 million acres this year, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center — more than double the previous record of 17.5 million acres in 1995. That number is likely to keep rising because wildfire season in Canada typically continues into October.
In addition to Canada, several other regions of the world have experienced severe wildfires this year:
Greece: The combination of record-setting heat and dry and windy weather sparked wildfires in Greece all summer long. Wildfire carbon emissions during July and August were the third-highest on record for that time of year, Copernicus said. Last month, the European Union’s largest fire on record killed at least 20 people and burned more than 200,000 acres in northern Greece. The summer fires made the land more susceptible to the deadly flooding that occurred last week by reducing the volume of trees and other plants available to absorb rainfall.
Hawaii: Wildfires that destroyed parts of Maui, including the historic town of Lahaina, were the deadliest in the United States in more than 100 years. Thousands of people were forced to evacuate, including some who jumped into the ocean to flee the flames. Downed power lines may have started one of the blazes. The fires rapidly spread out of control because of strong winds created by a combination of weather systems, including Hurricane Dora as it passed about 500 miles to the south.
Elsewhere: Intense wildfires occurred in Russia, Spain, Portugal and Chile. Reuters reported the worst-hit areas of Russia to be the Yakutia Khabarovsk, Amur and Krasnoyarsk regions.
Wildfires emit hundreds of chemicals into the air. These include tiny — but dangerous — particles that pose numerous health hazards if inhaled. Fires additionally release large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.
Smoke plumes from Canadian wildfires have repeatedly poured into the United States during the summer, in some cases degrading air quality to dangerously low levels. Nearly 300 air quality monitoring stations, many in the Midwest and Northeast, reported their highest pollution levels on record, according to a Washington Post analysis of smoke data from Stanford University. Smoke from Canada even reached Europe, making skies hazy but not significantly affecting air quality.
Record heat and prolonged drought, both intensified by human-caused climate change, have fueled many of this year’s massive fires across the globe, part of an alarming trend of deadly fires in recent years. Scientists expect fires to become larger, more frequent and more widespread as the world continues to warm.
“As temperatures keep increasing and dry conditions become more long-term, the chances of experiencing devastating wildfires like those in Canada are increasing,” Mark Parrington, a senior scientist at Copernicus, said in a news release.