Wildfires emitted equivalent of half of EU's annual CO2 emissions last year

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SAKHA REPUBLIC (YAKUTIA), RUSSIA - AUGUST 16, 2021: An employee of the Russian Aerial Forest Protection Service battles a wildfire. Firefighters extinguished 11 wildfires covering an area of 42,000 hectares the day before. On August 13, 2021, Russia's Sakha Republic and Irkutsk Region declared a state of emergency. Video screen grab. Best quality available. Russian Aerial Forest Protection Service/TASS

A STILL IMAGE TAKEN FROM A VIDEO PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY
 (Photo by Russian Aerial Forest Protection\TASS via Getty Images)
Wildfires raged across Siberia this summer. (Russian Aerial Forest Protection\TASS via Getty Images)

Wildfires blazed around the world this summer, and released a record amount of carbon dioxide – equivalent to roughly half the EU’s total carbon emissions

According to data from the European Union Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service fires in America, Siberia and Turkey were unusually intense. 

Yakutia, in northeastern Siberia, emitted the highest CO2 emissions from wildfires since 2003. 

The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service said: “The summer of 2021 in particular experienced a number of extreme wildfires which led to the highest estimated emissions for some of the months in the CAMS GFAS dataset. 

“Not only were extensive parts affected throughout the summer, but their persistence and intensity were remarkable. This included vast expanses in North America, Siberia, eastern and central Mediterranean, and North Africa.”

The scientists say that areas with the wildfires coincided with high surface temperatures in the same area - and the scientists suggest that it is linked to global warming. 

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Mark Parrington, senior scientist and wildfire expert at the ECMWF Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, said: “As the year draws to a close, we have seen extensive regions experience intense and prolonged wildfire activity, some of which has been at an level not observed in the last couple of decades. 

“Drier and hotter regional conditions caused by global warming increase the risk of flammability and fire risk of vegetation and this has been reflected in the extremely large, fast-developing and persistent fires we have been monitoring.”

“It is clear from 2021 that climate change is providing the ideal environments for wildfires, which can also be exacerbated by local weather conditions. Our five-day forecasts allow decision-makers, organisations and individuals to take mitigating action in advance of any pollution incidents.”

This year saw extreme weather events becoming normal across the world, with a 90-fold increase in monthly heat extremes compared to 1951-1980.

On average, about nine percent of all land area is affected by so-called three-sigma heat events (three standard deviations hotter than average), the research found. 

TOPSHOT - A wildfire burns a forest in the village of Villa, Northwestern Athens, on August 18, 2021. - As devastating wildfires ravage Greece, experts say the blazes cast a harsh light on the failure to prepare against and contain them, threatening irreversible damage to the country's rich biodiversity. (Photo by ANGELOS TZORTZINIS / AFP) (Photo by ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP via Getty Images)
A wildfire burns a forest in the village of Villa, north-western Athens, on 18 August 2021 (AFP via Getty Images)

Record daily rainfall events have also increased due to climate change, with one in four rainfall records in the past decade attributed to climate change. 

Worryingly, rainfall events are increasing in already-wet areas, while dry areas are becoming ever more arid, the researchers say. 

Lead author Alexander Robinson, from Complutense University of Madrid, Spain, and Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Germany, said: "For extreme extremes, what we call 4-sigma-events that have been virtually absent before, we even see a roughly 1,000-fold increase compared to the reference period. They affected about 3% of global land area in 2011-20 in any month.

"This confirms previous findings, yet with ever-increasing numbers. 

“We are seeing extremes now which are virtually impossible without the influence of global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels."

The seemingly small amount of warming in the past 10 years, just 0.25C, has pushed up climate extremes substantially.

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Co-author Stefan Rahmstorf, from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said: "These data show that extremes are now far outside the historical experience. Extreme heat and extreme rainfall are increasing disproportionally

"Our analysis confirms once again that for the impacts of global heating on us humans, every tenth of a degree matters."

For example, 2020 brought prolonged heat waves to both Siberia and Australia, contributing to the emergence of devastating wildfires in both regions. 

Temperatures at life-threatening levels have hit parts of the US and Canada in 2021, reaching almost 50C. 

Compared to what would have to be expected in a climate without global warming, the number of wet records increased by about 30%. 

Importantly, dry regions such as western North America and South Africa have seen a reduction in rainfall records, while wet regions such as central and northern Europe have seen a strong increase. 

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This summer, climate researchers said that the ‘heat dome’ affecting the US was ‘virtually impossible’ without human-induced climate change. 

Researchers working on the report say that weather events this year show the effect of climate change are already here. 

Paulo Artaxo, a lead author of the report and an environmental physicist at the University of Sao Paulo said: "The heat wave in Canada, fires in California, floods in Germany, floods in China, droughts in central Brazil make it very, very clear that climate extremes are having a very heavy toll."

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