Wildfires in the boreal forests of Canada and Russia of rising intensity are sharply reducing air quality and pumping tons of carbon dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere, the EU’s earth observation programme has warned.
Fires in Canada’s main oil-producing province of Alberta alone have burnt about 1 million acres since January 1 and forced nearly 30,000 people to evacuate in the past week.
The relocation of communities and proximity of fires also caused more than a dozen oil and gases companies to temporarily shut or curtail operations, including Cenovus Energy, Paramount Resources, Crescent Point Energy, NuVista Energy and Tourmaline Oil, the country’s largest gas producer.
About 3.7 per cent of production had been affected by midweek, or about 320,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day, Reuters reported. This compares with a blaze in 2016 that shut down more than 1 million boe per day of output from the oil sands.
The latest blazes have taken hold in the boreal forests, the northern forests consisting mainly of conifers that cover large portions of Canada, Russia and Alaska, that are the world’s largest land-based store of carbon.
According to the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, the fires in Alberta have emitted 5 megatons of carbon this year.
A study published last year found that wildfires in boreal North America could release up to 12 gigatons of carbon dioxide from now to 2050, releasing the carbon that they store into the atmosphere when they burn.
Global carbon dioxide emissions from energy and industry reached a new record of 36.8Gt in 2022, the International Energy Agency calculated.
While boreal forest fires are not unusual in spring, scientists have observed the increasing intensity of fires over the past decade as average temperatures in the north of the planet have risen faster than closer to the equator as a result of global warming, as the reflective snow and ice of the Arctic has melted away.
Earlier this year, researchers found that summertime fires in boreal forests had expanded since 2000, and contributed close to a quarter of total carbon emissions from wildfires in 2021, releasing a record 1.76bn tonnes of CO₂.
Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday said the country’s armed forces would help provide firefighting support and airlift resources to people living in Alberta.
Above-average temperatures are expected in the region over the weekend, according to the Canadian government’s weather service, which forecast “unseasonably hot, dry conditions” and above-average seasonal temperatures until Tuesday.
In the US, the National Weather Service forecast that an intense heatwave would affect the Pacific Northwest region from Friday, with areas of Oregon and Washington states experiencing unseasonable daytime high temperatures of 35C (95F).
Canada’s fires have produced large plumes of smoke, visible to satellites, that have crossed the country towards the northeastern US in recent days and is predicted to continue to the Atlantic Ocean in the coming days.
In Russia, wildfires are burning across the Urals and Siberia, in a band stretching from the Chelyabinsk region across Omsk and Novosibirsk regions to Primorye, and are also affecting Kazakhstan and Mongolia.
Earlier this week, local authorities in Russia said more than 54,000 hectares of forests in the Sverdlovsk region in the Urals were on fire as of Monday morning, the AP reported.
Copernicus said the total estimated carbon emissions from Russian wildfires are presently below average for the period.
But Mark Parrington, a senior scientist for Copernicus’s atmosphere monitoring project, said the scale and intensity of the current fires “are reflecting increased fire risk following some weeks of drier than usual conditions”.
In Canada, for example, slightly more than 44 per cent of Alberta was experiencing drought at the end of March, mapping from the North American Drought Monitor showed.
Wildfires in the northern hemisphere are generally becoming more frequent and intense as the planet warms and summers get hotter. Last summer, extreme heat in the Mediterranean region helped fuel large wildfires in France, Spain, Portugal and Greece.