Fire activity hotspots reached 'unprecedented intensity' in 2020

Wildfire hotspots in the western US and Arctic reached ‘unprecedented intensity’ in 2020 – but global fire emissions are decreasing overall, satellite data shows

  • EU researchers tracked the devastating wildfires across the world’s hotspots
  • Data shows ‘complicated picture for 2020’ with Australia and Caribbean also hit
  • Carbon that’s stored in trees and other vegetation releases greenhouse gases 

Wildfires in the Arctic Circle and western US reached ‘unprecedented intensity’ in 2020 – although global fire emissions are decreasing overall, new EU data shows. 

While 2020 was one of the lowest years for active fires at the global scale, fire intensity has been far higher in the worst affected areas, according to the EU’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS). 

There’s been increased wildfire activity in Siberia, Colorado, California, Australia, and parts of the Caribbean and the Pantanal region of Southern Brazil, while activity in southern tropical Africa has been ‘very low’ this year. 

As wildfires burn, carbon stored in trees and other vegetation combusts, releasing carbon dioxide (CO2) and other potent greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. 

CAMS revealed there was approximately 1,690 megatonnes of carbon discharged into the atmosphere from wildfires between January 1 and December 7 this year – down from 1,870 megatonnes last year.    

Data is based on CAMS’s Global Fire Assimilation System (GFAS), which produces daily estimates of wildfire and biomass burning emissions. 

Scientists from the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) have spent the year tracking the devastating wildfires which have occurred in several hotspots across the world. Despite some regions such as the western US being particularly badly hit, there have been fewer wildfires across the globe, continuing a trend of declining emissions since 2003

The new data continues a trend of declining carbon emissions since 2003, when GFAS started running. 

‘While 2020 has certainly been a devastating year for wildfires in the most badly-affected hotspots, emissions across the world have been lower due to better fire management and mitigation measures,’ said Mark Parrington, senior scientist and wildfire expert at CAMS.

‘Since we began monitoring wildfires via our GFAS system in 2003, we have seen a gradual decline in emission rates. 

‘However, this is no time to be complacent as wildfires in the worse affected areas were of record intensity as a result of warmer, drier conditions. 

‘This resulted in increased pollutants being carried thousands of miles, affecting air quality for millions of people.’ 

CAMS scientists monitor daily wildlife activity around the world using a measure of heat output called fire radiative power (FRP). 

These observations come from satellite-based sensors that can detect the heat signal and are used to estimate intensity of fires. 

The CAMS Global Fire Assimilation System (GFAS) estimated carbon emissions from 2003 to 2020 (1 January to 7 December) show a general trend of a decline in emissions

In 2020, four areas in particular were hit with fires of high intensity – western US, Arctic Circle, the Caribbean and Australia. 

CAMS found one of the most severe wildfire regions to be across the western US following particularly hot and dry conditions in August and September.

In several US states, starting in California and Colorado and spreading to Oregon, Washington, Utah, Montana and Idaho, wildfire activity in the region was tens to hundreds of times more intense than the 2003-2019 average in the whole of the US. 

In California and Oregon, carbon emission were estimated at more than 30.3 megatonnes for the year, up to September 14.  

Above: CAMS data on fire radiative power (a measure of fire intensity) for California and Oregon for 2020 (red) shows the devastating effect the wildfires are having in comparison to the 2003-2019 average (grey). Below: CAMS Estimated Annual Total Wildfire Carbon Emissions for California and Oregon

CAMS said: ‘These fires emitted huge amounts of smoke and pollution into the atmosphere with satellite observations of carbon emission estimated at over 30.3 megatonnes’

Smoke plumes from the US wildfires were far-reaching, travelling to parts of Northern Europe, an event forecasted by CAMS.  

Meanwhile, 2020 saw another active year for wildfires across the far northeast of Siberia and the Arctic Circle. 

In May, as the Boreal fire season got under way, scientists saw signs of fires reigniting in the Arctic, following an unusually warm spring. 

FRP, a measure of heat output from wildfires, in the Arctic Circle between June and August 2020

Although not confirmed due to a lack of ground measurements, so-called ‘zombie fires’ – those that resurrect after smouldering underground during winter – were particularly raging in widespread areas that had been burning in 2019 too.

By September, CAMS scientists were able to confirm that summer 2020’s Arctic wildfires had already set new emission records, with smoke plumes covering the equivalent of more than a third of Canada. 

Scientists estimated that CO2 emissions from fires in the Arctic Circle increased by just over a third compared with 2019 figures. 

From January 1 to the end of August, CO2 emissions for the Arctic Circle were 244 megatonnes, compared with 181 megatonnes for the whole of 2019.

Another badly hit part of the world in 2020 was the Caribbean region, where CAMS monitored wildfire activity during the northern hemisphere tropical fire season, typically taking place from January to May. 

FRP shown during the northern hemisphere tropical fire season (red) and the 2003–2019 average (grey)

At the end of the season, scientists reported that emissions for the region which included countries such as Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and the Mexico Yucatan Peninsula, were well above the 2003-2019 average. 

In 2020, CAMS estimated that 2.5 megatonnes of carbon were released into the atmosphere from the Honduras fires – more than any year since 2003. 

Belize and the Yucatan Peninsula also released higher carbon emissions than the average for 2003 to 2019.

Venezuela also saw higher-than-average activity across all four months in the first third of 2020, with carbon emissions higher than any year since CAMS records began in 2003. 

Meanwhile, Columbia saw intense activity in February after a slow start with overall emissions of carbon higher than the 2003-2019 average.

Australia’s well-documented bushfires during the 2019-2020 summer season killed at least 34 people and billions of wildlife, and scorched about 18 million hectares of land.  

Combined, Australia’s bushfires released more than 400 megatonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Fire and rescue personnel run to move their truck as a bushfire burns next to a major road on the outskirts of the town of Bilpin, New South Wales, Australia on December 19, 2019

Total FRP for 2019 and 2020 (red) compared to the average for the previous 16 years (grey) for New South Wales (left) and Victoria (right)

‘These fires had a huge effect on air quality as smoke from the fires covered an area of 20 million square kilometres, large enough to blanket all of Russia, with still some spare to cover a third of Europe,’ CAMS said. 

Australia and parts of Asia are beginning to see increasing activity as their annual fire seasons begin once again. 

As it is yet to be seen whether fire activity in these regions will be above or below average, CAMS’s dedicated wildfire monitoring page lets people keep track of fire activity around the world.

‘By continuing to monitor the scale, intensity and emissions of these wildfires on a daily basis across the globe, our aim is to raise awareness of their long-lasting and large-scale impact,’ said Parrington. 

‘This helps inform policy-makers, organisations, businesses and the individual citizen to plan against the potential effects of air pollution, particularly important now that the Covid-19 pandemic has hit us.’  

Revealed: MailOnline dissects the impact greenhouse gases have on the planet – and what is being done to stop air pollution

Emissions

Carbon dioxide

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is one of the biggest contributors to global warming. After the gas is released into the atmosphere it stays there, making it difficult for heat to escape – and warming up the planet in the process. 

It is primarily released from burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, as well as cement production. 

The average monthly concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, as of April 2019, is 413 parts per million (ppm). Before the Industrial Revolution, the concentration was just 280 ppm. 

CO2 concentration has fluctuated over the last 800,000 years between 180 to 280ppm, but has been vastly accelerated by pollution caused by humans. 

Nitrogen dioxide 

The gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2) comes from burning fossil fuels, car exhaust emissions and the use of nitrogen-based fertilisers used in agriculture.

Although there is far less NO2 in the atmosphere than CO2, it is between 200 and 300 times more effective at trapping heat.

Sulfur dioxide 

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) also primarily comes from fossil fuel burning, but can also be released from car exhausts.

SO2 can react with water, oxygen and other chemicals in the atmosphere to cause acid rain. 

Carbon monoxide 

Carbon monoxide (CO) is an indirect greenhouse gas as it reacts with hydroxyl radicals, removing them. Hydroxyl radicals reduce the lifetime of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. 

Particulates

What is particulate matter?

Particulate matter refers to tiny parts of solids or liquid materials in the air. 

Some are visible, such as dust, whereas others cannot be seen by the naked eye. 

Materials such as metals, microplastics, soil and chemicals can be in particulate matter.

Particulate matter (or PM) is described in micrometres. The two main ones mentioned in reports and studies are PM10 (less than 10 micrometres) and PM2.5 (less than 2.5 micrometres).

Air pollution comes from burning fossil fuels, cars, cement making and agriculture 

Scientists measure the rate of particulates in the air by cubic metre.

Particulate matter is sent into the air by a number of processes including burning fossil fuels, driving cars and steel making.

Why are particulates dangerous?

Particulates are dangerous because those less than 10 micrometres in diameter can get deep into your lungs, or even pass into your bloodstream. Particulates are found in higher concentrations in urban areas, particularly along main roads. 

Health impact

What sort of health problems can pollution cause?

According to the World Health Organization, a third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease can be linked to air pollution. 

Some of the effects of air pollution on the body are not understood, but pollution may increase inflammation which narrows the arteries leading to heart attacks or strokes. 

As well as this, almost one in 10 lung cancer cases in the UK are caused by air pollution. 

Particulates find their way into the lungs and get lodged there, causing inflammation and damage. As well as this, some chemicals in particulates that make their way into the body can cause cancer. 

Deaths from pollution 

Around seven million people die prematurely because of air pollution every year. Pollution can cause a number of issues including asthma attacks, strokes, various cancers and cardiovascular problems. 

 

Asthma triggers

Air pollution can cause problems for asthma sufferers for a number of reasons. Pollutants in traffic fumes can irritate the airways, and particulates can get into your lungs and throat and make these areas inflamed. 

Problems in pregnancy 

Women exposed to air pollution before getting pregnant are nearly 20 per cent more likely to have babies with birth defects, research suggested in January 2018.

Living within 3.1 miles (5km) of a highly-polluted area one month before conceiving makes women more likely to give birth to babies with defects such as cleft palates or lips, a study by University of Cincinnati found.

For every 0.01mg/m3 increase in fine air particles, birth defects rise by 19 per cent, the research adds. 

Previous research suggests this causes birth defects as a result of women suffering inflammation and ‘internal stress’. 

What is being done to tackle air pollution? 

Paris agreement on climate change

The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change. 

It hopes to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C (3.6ºF) ‘and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C (2.7°F)’.

Carbon neutral by 2050 

The UK government has announced plans to make the country carbon neutral by 2050. 

They plan to do this by planting more trees and by installing ‘carbon capture’ technology at the source of the pollution.

Some critics are worried that this first option will be used by the government to export its carbon offsetting to other countries.

International carbon credits let nations continue emitting carbon while paying for trees to be planted elsewhere, balancing out their emissions.

No new petrol or diesel vehicles by 2040

In 2017, the UK government announced the sale of new petrol and diesel cars would be banned by 2040.  

However,  MPs on the climate change committee have urged the government to bring the ban forward to 2030, as by then they will have an equivalent range and price.

The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change. Pictured: air pollution over Paris in 2019.

Norway’s electric car subsidies

The speedy electrification of Norway’s automotive fleet is attributed mainly to generous state subsidies. Electric cars are almost entirely exempt from the heavy taxes imposed on petrol and diesel cars, which makes them competitively priced.

A VW Golf with a standard combustion engine costs nearly 334,000 kroner (34,500 euros, $38,600), while its electric cousin the e-Golf costs 326,000 kroner thanks to a lower tax quotient. 

Criticisms of inaction on climate change

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has said there is a ‘shocking’ lack of Government preparation for the risks to the country from climate change. 

The committee assessed 33 areas where the risks of climate change had to be addressed – from flood resilience of properties to impacts on farmland and supply chains – and found no real progress in any of them.

The UK is not prepared for 2°C of warming, the level at which countries have pledged to curb temperature rises, let alone a 4°C rise, which is possible if greenhouse gases are not cut globally, the committee said.

It added that cities need more green spaces to stop the urban ‘heat island’ effect, and to prevent floods by soaking up heavy rainfall. 

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