In a concerning development, Canada is grappling with an unprecedented wildfire season that has led to record-breaking carbon emissions and the dispersion of smoke across continents. The EU’s Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service recently revealed that the wildfires in eastern and western Canada have released a staggering 160 million tonnes of carbon, the highest recorded emissions to date.
According to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, this year’s wildfire season is the worst on record, with approximately 76,000 square kilometers (29,000 square miles) of land consumed by flames across eastern and western Canada. This surpasses the combined area burned in 2016, 2019, 2020, and 2022.
The emissions resulting from these fires have reached their peak since satellite monitoring began in 2003, surpassing the previous record set in 2014 at 140 million tonnes. Mark Parrington, a senior scientist at Copernicus, explained that the growth in emissions is primarily driven by fires in eastern Canada, with Alberta and British Columbia not setting any new records.
The concern among scientists is not only the extent of the wildfires but also the impact on the atmosphere and air quality. The carbon released by these fires is roughly equivalent to the annual carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels in Indonesia. Canada’s vast northern boreal forest, which stores over 200 billion tonnes of carbon, plays a crucial role in mitigating global warming. However, when these forests burn, they release a portion of that stored carbon into the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change and creating a dangerous cycle that increases the likelihood of future fires.
The effects of the Canadian wildfires have been felt beyond its borders, with smoke blanketing major urban centers in June, including New York City and Toronto, casting an eerie orange hue over the skies. Public health authorities issued air quality alerts, advising residents to remain indoors. Wildfire smoke has been linked to higher rates of heart attacks, strokes, and respiratory conditions necessitating emergency room visits.
Now, the plume of smoke has crossed the North Atlantic, and according to Mark Parrington, the fires in Quebec and Ontario will likely result in hazy skies and deep orange sunsets in Europe. Fortunately, the smoke is predicted to remain higher in the atmosphere, minimizing potential impacts on surface air quality.
Unfortunately, the situation shows no signs of improvement as much of Canada continues to experience unusually warm and dry conditions. Parrington remarked that there is no end in sight to the ongoing wildfires. Typically, Canada’s wildfire season reaches its peak in late July or August, with emissions expected to rise further throughout the summer.