Canadian bushfire emissions hit record highs as smoke reaches Europe

27 June – Wildfires that have swept through large swathes of eastern and western Canada have released a record 160 million tonnes of carbon, the EU’s Copernicus atmospheric monitoring service said on Tuesday.

This year’s fire season is the worst on record in Canada, with about 76,000 square kilometers (29,000 sq mi) ablaze in eastern and western Canada. That’s greater than the combined area burned in 2016, 2019, 2020 and 2022, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center.

As of June 26, annual wildfire emissions are now the largest for Canada since satellite monitoring began in 2003, surpassing 2014 at 140 million tons.

“The difference is that the Canadian Eastern fires are driving this growth in emissions more than just Western Canada,” said Mark Parrington, Copernicus senior scientist. Emissions from Alberta and British Columbia alone, he said, are far from setting a record.

Scientists are particularly concerned about what Canada’s wildfires are putting into the atmosphere and the air we breathe.

The carbon they released is roughly equivalent to Indonesia’s annual carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Forests serve as a critical repository for planet-warming carbon. Canada’s northern boreal forest is estimated to store more than 200 billion tons of carbon equivalent to several decades of global carbon emissions. But when forests burn, they release some of that carbon into the atmosphere. This accelerates global warming and creates a dangerous feedback loop creating conditions where forests are more likely to burn.

Smoke from the Canadian wildfires blanketed several major urban centers in June, including New York City and Toronto, turning the skies an eerie orange.

Public health authorities have issued air quality advisories, urging residents to stay indoors. Smoke from wildfires is linked to higher rates of heart attacks, strokes, and more emergency room visits for respiratory problems.

Now, the plume has crossed the North Atlantic. Worsening fires in Quebec and Ontario are likely to produce hazy skies and orange sunsets in Europe this week, Parrington said. However, as the smoke is expected to remain higher in the atmosphere, surface air quality is unlikely to be affected.

With much of Canada still experiencing unusually hot and dry conditions, “there’s no end in sight yet,” Parrington said.

Fire season in Canada typically peaks in late July or August, with emissions continuing to climb throughout the summer.

(This story was corrected to say “2016, 2019, 2020 and 2022”, not “2016, 2019, 2022 and 2022” in paragraph 2)

Editing by David Evans and Ed Osmond

Our standards: the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Gloria Dickies

Thomson Reuters

Gloria Dickie reports on climate and environmental issues for Reuters. She is based in London. Her interests include biodiversity loss, arctic science, the cryosphere, international climate diplomacy, climate change and public health, and human-wildlife conflict. Previously she worked as a freelance environmental journalist for 7 years, writing for publications such as The New York Times, Guardian, Scientific American and Wired magazine. Dickie was a 2022 finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists in the international reporting category for her climate reporting from Svalbard. She is also a WW Norton author.

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