The Mediterranean, North America, Siberia. The wave of large wildfires this summer has been devastating. Two large claims have resounded in Spain: Navalacruz and Sierra Bermeja. But, in addition to the destruction, by burning millions of trees, these fires have emitted an unprecedented amount of greenhouse gases in the Northern Hemisphere.
From Grecia to Sierra Bermeja: a summer of superfires fueled by climate change
Forest fires form a vicious cycle with climate change. Climatic conditions favor the expansion of large fires that, in turn, expel millions of tons of CO2, causing climate change. So last July and August the global records for fire emissions for those months were broken: 1,258 and 1,384 million tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere respectively, according to satellite calculations by the EU Atmospheric Watch Service Copernicus.
Copernicus wildfire expert Mark Parrington notes that “what was unusual about this summer has been the number of fires, the extent of the areas in which they were burning, their intensity and also their persistence.” In this sense, in Spain, the explosive fire in Sierra Bermeja was advancing “uncontrollably” until the entry of rainfall opened the door to contain the fronts.
When trees burn, they release much of the carbon they have held for decades or hundreds of years. Burning biomass produces mainly carbon dioxide (CO2) and water vapor. A forest fire suddenly emits a large amount of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.
The Copernicus analysis explains that the dry conditions and heat wave of the Mediterranean basin caused very destructive fires to spread through Turkey, Greece, Algeria, Italy, North Macedonia and Tunisia and hit the Iberian Peninsula: Spain and Portugal . “There were many intense and fast-spreading fires that created large amounts of pollution with smoke plumes clearly visible in satellite images,” the System has described.
In North America, on the other hand, the fires affected the entire western strip from Canada to California (USA). Only the fires from June to August in that state exceeded 35 million tons of CO2, when in 2020 they had been about 15 million and already represented three times more than the average of the 21st century.
In Russian Siberia, a new historical record for emissions from forest destruction was set on August 3. The center of the fires was in the Republic of Sakha, where the intensity of the fires was above the historical average from June until well into September. In Russia alone, CO2 emissions from forest fires between June and August climbed to 970 million tons.
In the northern part of the Earth, the fires in North America and Russia caused more than half of all the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere with this process in July 2021, which gives an idea of the scale of the incidents that occurred. .
In short, last July and August – the peak of the boreal fire season, as Copernicus describes it – the destruction by the flames of forests in all these countries emitted an absolute record of 2.6 billion tons of CO2. A historic contribution to the crust of gases that overheat the planet and worsen the climate crisis.
The World Resources Institute (WRI) describes that “fires do not increase in isolation, but are only one piece of a multiple climate system that feeds back.” In other words, there is a cycle, in this case destructive, that “is getting worse and, therefore, accelerates climate change,” he concludes.
The cycle is basically that global warming of the Earth is creating the favorable environmental conditions for more and more destructive fires to break out and spread. Once started, the fires release a large amount of greenhouse gases that aggravate the atmospheric plug and, therefore, the alteration of the climate. That perpetuates the conditions that are making the fires worse. And start over.
Each stage of this process gets worse, according to the data that scientists are collecting. Mark Parrington confirms that “it is worrying that the drier and warmer conditions, caused by global warming, increase the flammability and the risk of combustion of vegetation, which has led to very intense and rapidly expanding fires.”
In Spain, for example, summers now last five weeks longer than in 1980, which prolongs the time of fire risk. Temperature global warming in the country has risen 1.7ºC since pre-industrial times (three-quarters of this warming has accumulated in the last 60 years). “In the last 30 years, the number of daily high temperature records is much higher than what would be expected in a climate that is not warming up,” says the State Meteorological Agency (Aemet). The great Navalacruz fire, which charred more than 22,000 hectares, began when the heat wave arrived from August 11 to 16. It was “one of the most intense of those that have been lived”, described the AEMET. The maximums were broken in a score of stations on the Agency’s main network.
So while specific weather conditions at each location play an important role in fire behavior, “climate change is helping to provide an ideal environment for wildfires,” confirms Parrington. In this sense, Spanish forests, which are ultimately what burns when a forest fire breaks out, are suffering from climatic changes and are recovering more and more with difficulty from the periods of drought that attack them.
At the same time, the emission of greenhouse gases from other sources, basically the burning of fossil fuels for electricity and transportation, far from slowing down this year, is on the way to another rebound. The COVID-19 pandemic, with its economic and social halt, had led to a drop in these emissions (in Spain to below 1990 levels). However, this course, power generation or industry already releases as much CO2 as in 2019, according to the Global Carbon Project. The concentration of this gas in the atmosphere has grown and, by 2021, has already exceeded 415 parts per million. Not even the pandemic has been able to stop it.