Climate journalism is urgent. Help US raise $125,000 by December's end.
Canada’s wildfires have broken yet another record — this time, for heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions.
This year, climate change has driven Canada’s most severe wildfire season on record. So far, wildfires in Canada have already emitted more than double the previous record annual amount of emissions. Greg Evans, an air pollution and public health expert at the University of Toronto, said the emissions create a “feedback loop.”
“The additional release of carbon dioxide is going to result in additional warming, which results in additional drought and additional wildfires,” Evans said.
According to the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), the European Union's Earth observation program, Canadian wildfires emitted about 290 million tonnes of planet-warming carbon between Jan. 1 and July 31. That's more than one billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. To put that in perspective, that’s about equivalent to the annual emissions from more than 285 coal-fired power plants.
It’s well over the 672 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent Canada reported emitting in 2020. It’s also more than double the previous annual record, according to CAMS, when Canadian wildfires emitted 138 million tonnes of carbon — or 506 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent — in 2014.
The growing frequency and intensity of wildfires are linked to climate change. Since the 1950s, forest fires have steadily burned more area in Canada’s northwestern boreal forests each year. According to Natural Resources Canada, some of that increase has been attributed to climate change, which is mainly caused by burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas.
On its website, Natural Resources Canada says climate change is expected to result in forest fires happening more often in boreal forests. Natural Resources Canada adds the hot and dry conditions that make forest fires more likely are expected to increase across Canada.
In a statement earlier this month, federal Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson blamed the “worst wildfire season on record” on climate change.
Experts with CAMS attribute the severity of this year’s wildfires to a combination of warm and dry weather and El Niño conditions, which trigger warm weather.
This year, climate change has driven Canada’s most severe wildfire season on record. So far, wildfires in Canada have emitted more than double the previous record annual amount of emissions. #GHGs
In a press release, CAMS senior scientist Mark Parrington said fire emissions from Canada’s boreal regions typically peak in July and continue through early August. He said the emissions are likely to keep rising over the coming weeks.
“In recent years, we have seen significant wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere, but this year’s fire activity in Canada is highly unusual,” Parrington said.
Senior Environment Canada climatologist David Phillips said the intensity of the wildfires was likely heightened by warmer water temperatures along Canada’s coasts. He added a winter that was, on average, two degrees warmer across the country could have made forests more susceptible to burning.
“We didn't have spring. We went from slush to sweat,” Phillips said. “The snow disappeared quickly and the trees hadn't greened up yet and that was a critical situation for the Alberta fires.”
Instead of El Niño, Phillips said warm water temperatures were instrumental in causing the hotter temperatures in Canada this year.
“I actually think El Niño is a little bit overblown, in terms of this summer,” Phillips said. “The critical factor is the very warm water temperatures.”
The wildfires have already burned through a record area this year, with more than 100,000 square kilometres scorched by July 17. That number is rapidly increasing. According to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, 5,145 wildfires have burned through more than 130,000 square kilometres as of Aug. 3.
Besides warming the planet, wildfire emissions are also impacting human health. Evans said wildfires make people more susceptible to asthma attacks or heart attacks. He added long-term exposure to the smoke can also make people more vulnerable during periods of poor air quality in the future.
“Parts of Canada are experiencing poor air quality at a level that they've never experienced before,” Evans said. “Canada generally has very good air quality in many places — something we've enjoyed for a long time — and it’s a shame to see us taking such a rapid step back.”
Evans added emissions, like the planet-warming gases from these wildfires, stick around in the atmosphere for 40 years.
“It’s so critical to start taking action now to turn it around,” Evans said. “This is something that our grandchildren will inherit. It's not like we can turn it off and it will all get better.”