ScienceLast month was worst July for wildfires since records...

Last month was worst July for wildfires since records began

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Fires on forests and grasslands in July released 343 megatons of carbon emissions, which is about a fifth higher than the previous global record for July, set in 2014, according to EU’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service. This was driven by record heatwaves and prolonged droughts in many parts of the world, which themselves are fueled by climate heating.

Image credit: Flickr / Lotus R

“This stands out by a clear margin,” Mark Parrington, a senior scientist in the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, which estimates the carbon releases, told The Guardian. “The July global total this year is the highest since our records began in 2003.”

More than half of the carbon emissions came just from two regions (North America and Siberia) that have experienced extremely hot and dry weather in the mid-summer season, according to the Copernicus report. This is only the latest in a series of unwelcomed recent records, as the world is feeling the growing effects of the climate change crisis. 

Cities in western provinces of Canada and in the US states of Oregon and Washington saw temperatures above 40ºC (104 ºF) on the last few days, with a new all-time Canadian temperature record of 49.6ºC (120 ºF) in the town of Lytton. The record temperatures led to spikes in sudden deaths and hospitalizations and forest fires in many locations.

A similar scenario was registered in Siberia, where average temperatures have soared up to 10ºC above average in the biggest and coldest region, Yakutia. Much of the area is dense taiga forest, which ignites more easily when hot and dry. Despite efforts to control them, dozens of forest fires raged out of control, with authorities asking people not to go out. 

In a recent study, scientists calculated that climate change dramatically increased the chances of this type of extreme heat happening. The study, not peer-reviewed yet, found that before the industrial era, this type of heatwave just wouldn’t have happened. Even in today’s warming world, the heat was a once-in-a-millennium event, the researchers said.

North of Athens, Greece, thousands of residents recently fled to safety from a wildfire that burned for a fourth consecutive day. The blaze tore through forest areas 20 kilometers north of the capital, tearing apart many homes. Several hundred firefighters dug fire breaks and hosed the flames. Traffic was interrupted on the country’s main highway that connects Athens to northern Greece. 

Meanwhile, in Turkey, eight people have died and thousands have been evacuated from their homes, leaving firefighters battling blazes in several coastal resort towns. A similar scenario was seen in Italy, where the number of large wildfires is estimated to have tripled this summer compared to the yearly average, causing millions worth of damage. 

Upcoming challenges

While Europe deals with a very difficult scenario, in many parts of the world the fire season hasn’t approached its peak yet. That’s especially true in South America and Africa, which contribute a far greater share of associated carbon emissions than Europe. In Brazil, a severe drought is sparking concern that forest fires might remain on the same level as last year.

The government space agency, which uses satellites to monitor forest fires, reported a larger burned area in the month of July than in any July since 2016, according to data released this week. The same was true for June. Most forest fires in Brazil are manmade and often started illegally, as land-grabbers clear forest for cattle or soy crops.

Fires in Brazil usually start increasing in June and peak in September, according to historical data. They can easily get out of control during the dry season, burning large swaths of forest to the ground. Brazil has the world’s largest rainforest and tropical wetlands, the Amazon and the Pantanal, which saw record forest fires in 2019 and 2020. 

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