Copernicus: A year in fire
The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) tracks the intensity and emissions of wildfires across the globe. Scientists reveal that 2019 provided exceptional activity
As 2019 draws to a close and a new decade begins, the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) can bring to light its year in fire which has provided some exceptional activity in terms of both intensity and emissions across the globe.
Wildfires are commonplace around the world, with some regions experiencing regular fire activity at certain times of the year. Throughout the year, scientists from CAMS monitor wildfire activity around the globe using daily global active fire measurements and estimates emissions via its Global Fire Assimilation System (GFAS). By estimating the emissions created by the fires using measurements made by sensors on satellites and combining these with the ECMWF weather forecast system, CAMS scientists are able to give vital information, i.e. on how air quality will be affected up to five days ahead. CAMS is implemented by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts on behalf of the European Union.
Wildfires can be responsible for far greater air pollution than industrial emissions and produce a combination of particulates, carbon monoxide and other pollutants, that can be hazardous to the health of all life on the planet.
“It has been an extremely busy year for CAMS regarding the monitoring of wildfires,” comments Mark Parrington, Senior Scientist at CAMS. “Throughout the year we have been closely watching the intensity of the fires and the smoke they emit all around the world and have experienced at times some quite exceptional fire activity, even in places where we would expect to see fires at certain points of the year some of the activity has been surprising. Our monitoring is important in raising awareness of the wider-scale impacts of wildfires and their smoke emissions so that organizations, businesses and individuals can be informed and plan against the potential effects of air pollution.”
CAMS can reveal that around the world approximately 6,375 megatons of CO2 have been released into the atmosphere from wildfires between 1 January and 30 November 2019. Many have made headlines across the globe including the Amazon fires, Indonesian fires, the Arctic wildfires and the Australian bushfires. But some lesser known fires also had a significant effect on the environment and air quality, including in Colombia, Venezuela, Syria and Mexico. This year, CAMS spotlights five distinct fires:
Fires in Syria during the spring and early summer burnt large areas of cropland, resulting in cause to worry about food insecurity. While some fires appeared near then active front lines, wildfires were also reported in several other regions of the country, including wheat and barley fields in fertile Hassakeh province. As CAMS reported, the total Fire Radiative Power (FRP) detected across Syria from 10 May to 5 June was exceedingly above the 2003-2018 average. Hot and dry conditions due to above average surface temperature in late May made it easier for the fires to start and spread quickly, as well as hindered their suppression.
Boreal and Arctic circle wildfires
Starting in June 2019, the Arctic Circle wildfires were unprecedented in terms of location, scale and duration, resulting in the release of 182 megatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. These fires occurred across the Arctic Circle in the Sakha Republic of Siberia and in Alaska for a prolonged period between June and August. CAMS scientists monitored over 100 wildfires in the region, mainly caused by unusually hot and dry conditions in the region.
The typical wildfire season in boreal forests and the Arctic Circle is between May and September, but it was unusual to see so many fires of this scale and duration in the Arctic Circle in June.
Raging wildfires in Indonesia were one of the most intense incidents in nearly two decades. It is estimated that the Indonesian fires which started in August, pumped out at least 708 megatons of CO2 until the end of November 2019. The fires were mainly caused by the burning of carbon-rich peatlands and drier than average conditions. What also stood out was hat the daily total fire intensity was higher than the average of the last 16 years. Thousands of acres of ecologically significant land were burned, causing a toxic haze, threatening the health of the local population as well as the natural forests and wildlife. Fortunately, the fire intensity and the volume of emissions started to decline in October and was down to 48 megatons of estimated CO2 in the first two weeks of November. The reason for this was rain in southern Kalimantan through October although some fires continued in southern Sumatra.
Australian bushfires in Queensland and New South Wales
CAMS data showed that the Australian bushfires, which started in September and grew in intensity in early November, were unprecedented in certain regions when compared to the previous 16 years, causing widespread air quality issues. New South Wales was most significantly affected as well as Queensland which turned day into night in some areas. Smoke was subsequently transported beyond New Zealand and over the South Pacific Ocean, reaching as far as South America. Very high particulate matter caused a number of Australian regions to declare a state of emergency. This was not the first time this year, Australian regions suffered due to wildfires.
Using the Global Fire Assimilation System (GFAS), CAMS calculated that fires in the Amazonas region released approximately 25 megatons of carbon dioxide during the first 26 days of August. Whilst being highest estimated emission for August of all the Brazilian states that make up Amazonia Legal, it was still relatively consistent with previous August totals for the whole of Brazil since GFAS records begin in 2003. Huge plumes of smoke covering millions of square kilometres were seen on satellite imagery originating from fires across Western Amazonia. Much of the smoke from fires in Amazonas, Rondonia and Mato Grosso in Brazil, alongside the Santa Cruz department of Bolivia, was able to travel long distances. As with any vegetation fires, emissions cause a wide range of atmospheric pollution and particulate matter, greatly affecting air quality. In particular, Sao Paolo was affected by smoke emissions due to a change in the atmospheric circulation when north-westerly winds carried it to the city and as far away as the Atlantic coast. As well as having an impact on human health, the fires had an impact on the three million known species of plants and animals in the region. A major concern of fires of this scale in the region is the impact on the carbon cycle due to the loss of rainforest and a change in vegetation.
CAMS provides fire data for Windy app
Fires across the globe can now be tracked by users of the App, Windy, which has added a new map “Active fires”. Data for this is provided by the Copernicus Global Fire Assimilation System (GFAS) and displays the daily average of the fire radiative power (FRP).
A graphic showing fire hot spots around the world can be seen here.
For further information visit on CAMS’s monitoring of fires around the world can be found at: https://atmosphere.copernicus.eu/global-fire-emissions
Find detailed answers to questions around wildfires here: https://atmosphere.copernicus.eu/qa-wildfires