Worries over CO2 emissions from intensifying wildfires

Navin Singh Khadka BBC World Service 15 Nov 18;

Rising numbers of extreme wildfires could result in a significant increase in CO₂ emissions, scientists warn.

That could mean attaining the Paris climate agreement's goal of keeping global temperature rise well below 2C could become harder, they say.

Present emission-cut pledges by countries are projected to increase the average global temperature rise by more than 3C by the end of the century.

That would lead to dangerous climate change impacts, experts say.

These include sea level rise, drought, wildfires, among other extreme events.

"We can't neglect the emissions from wildfires," says Ramon Vallejo, a scientist specialising on fire ecology with the University of Barcelona.

"Particularly now that we are seeing intense wildfires all around the world."

Estimates and uncertainties

Although estimates vary and still carry uncertainties, some experts say wildfires account for up to 20% of total global greenhouse gas emissions.

They are estimated to increase by a few percent to roughly 30% by the end of this century depending on how the climate changes.

"It is a double whammy," said William Lau, atmospheric scientist with Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

"Big forest fires first lead to significant reduction of forests that suck in CO₂ from the atmosphere and the second loss is they cause significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions."

A study earlier this year, however, had found that the annual amount of CO₂ emitted as a result of wildfires having fallen over the past 80 years.

It said the main reason was that large areas of forest and savannah had been converted to land for crops over the past few decades and therefore wildfires had decreased.

The research, however, found that the drop was not huge though.

Intense wildfires
The reason behind that, experts say, is the significantly increased intensity and size of wildfires.

That is why, they add, there are now concerns over possible notable rise of CO₂ emissions.

The total global CO₂ emissions reached 32.5 billion tons last year, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

There has, however, not been an exact quantification of emissions from recent wildfires and the one in California now.

Some estimates suggest that the wildfire in northern California last year emitted as much CO₂ in a week as what all of the cars and trucks in the state do in a year.

That is why some fire experts in that US state fear that its level of CO₂ emissions could endanger its progress toward meeting its greenhouse gas reduction targets.

Other hotspots

While California and Australia are most of the time in news for their wildfires these days, other regions have also seen intensified wildfires recently.

Earlier this year, Greece saw its most deadly wildfire season in Europe since 1900 as it claimed 91 lives.

Last year, in Portugal and Spain nearly 70 people were killed by the extreme event.

Wildfires in Sweden this year were another extreme case.

According to the World Meteorological Organization, the fires burned 30,000 hectares of Swedish forest and triggered EU emergency response mechanisms.

In Indonesia, wildfires in September and October of 2015 released about 11.3 teragrams of CO₂ per day, the UN's weather agency said.

"For comparison, the daily release of CO₂ from fossil fuel burning in the European Union is 8.9 teragrams."

A recent study found that the Earth's boreal forests are now burning at a rate unseen in at least 10,000 years.

'100% rise in wildfires'

Another study published in Nature Communications has concluded that if global temperatures rose by three degrees, Mediterranean Europe could see a 100% rise in wildfires.

It added that a 1.5C rise could lead to a 40% increase in wildfires.

"We cannot extrapolate our findings to other forested regions of the world," said Dr Marco Turco, lead author of the report.

"But the projection is that most places across the globe will see similar intensified wildfires in a warming climate."

Scientists say warming causes more fires which, in turn, cause more warming.

Fossil fuel emissions

Some experts, however, say greenhouse emissions from wildfires are still tiny compared to emissions from other human activities.

"The California wildfires are enormous," said Pieter Tans, from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa).

"But I expect that the amount of CO₂ emitted is at most a few percent of what the US burns annually in making electricity, heating and cooling of buildings, traffic, etc."

Thomas Smith, assistant professor in environmental geography at the London School of Economics (LSE) has a similar view.

"These (California) fires are likely fairly insignificant in terms of their global contribution to greenhouse gases," he said.

"At any one time, there are many fires of a similar size burning across the planet; it's just that this one has been close to populated places."

Peatland perils

Some scientists say the really worry is burning of peatlands.

Many of them believe the largest ever wildfire emissions in modern times was the Indonesian peat fire in 1997-98.

Estimates vary, but the largest emission figure for it is 3.7 billion metric ton CO₂.

"The real wildcard is permafrost thaw due to climate change that can make a large amount of northern peat susceptible to fire, which was previously unavailable for burning," says Bill Degroot, a research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service.

"Peatlands are a very large terrestrial [carbon] pool."

Scientists also say the issue of wildfires is even more challenging compared to cutting down carbon emissions from burning of fossil fuels.

"If you want to, you can indeed cut down carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning activities - that is something under your control," says Professor Vallejo.

"But wildfires are not something controllable like that. They will happen and will intensify in a warming world."

San Francisco chokes on toxic air as wildfires rage
Javier TOVAR, AFP Yahoo News 17 Nov 18;

Paradise (United States) (AFP) - Schools and tourist attractions across the San Francisco Bay Area were shut Friday and residents were urged to remain indoors as smoke from California's deadliest ever wildfire -- a three-hour drive away -- produced air quality levels worse than in polluted megacities in South Asia.

The closures came as the number of people missing from the giant Camp Fire, which has devoured an area roughly the size of Chicago since it broke out last week, soared to more than 600, with 63 confirmed dead.

President Donald Trump is set to visit the tinder-dry state on Saturday to meet victims of the inferno, which has laid waste to the town of Paradise at the northern foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, destroying around 10,000 homes.

Some 180 miles (290 kilometers) to the southwest, San Francisco ordered all public schools shut and its iconic cable cars returned to their stations as the Air Quality Index soared to 213, comparable to Dhaka, Bangladesh and worse than Kolkata, India.

"San Francisco's air quality has moved from red or 'unhealthy' to purple or 'very unhealthy' due to local wildfires and weather patterns," the SFMTA transport authority said on its website.

"The Department of Public Health highly recommends that everyone stay indoors and avoid exposure to the outside air."

Mayor London Breed announced that public buses would be free for the day in order to ensure people have access to enclosed transportation.

Photos posted on social media showed the famous Golden Gate Bridge shrouded in thick smog.

"It's bad," said local resident Melvin Karsenti. "You have this constant haze over the city. The air feels thicker. I've never seen that many people wear (face) masks."

- Missing toll jumps -

On Thursday, authorities raised the number of missing people from 300 to 631 as investigators went back and reviewed emergency calls and reports of missing made when the Camp Fire erupted on November 8.

"I want you to understand that the chaos we were dealing with was extraordinary" Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea told journalists of the early days of the fire, explaining the alarming increase.

Much of the rescue work is now focused on Paradise, a community that is home to many retirees who found themselves unable to get out in time.

A total of 461 rescuers, assisted by 22 sniffer dogs, were going from house to house, as authorities called on relatives of the missing to provide DNA samples to help with identification of the dead.

"I'm still going to keep on looking and hope for the best," Jhonathan Clark, who was hunting for his brother, sister-in-law and nephew, told AFP.

"My dad is starting to lose hope a little bit," he added.

The remains of seven additional victims discovered by rescuers Thursday brought to 63 the number of people who have died in the Camp Fire, which remained only 45 percent contained Friday morning.

Three other people have died in southern California in another blaze dubbed the Woolsey Fire, which engulfed parts of Malibu, destroying the homes of several celebrities.

That inferno, which is about two-thirds the size of the Camp Fire, was close to 70 percent contained by Friday, as authorities predicted they would have it under control by Monday.

Many of the victims of the Camp Fire have been housed in temporary shelters and are facing homelessness as they try to rebuild their lives.

Adding to their misery, an outbreak of the highly contagious norovirus has been reported at several shelters.

Public health officials said 41 people had been sick with vomiting and diarrhea as of Wednesday evening and 25 had to be hospitalized.

"The number of sick people is increasing everyday," the Butte County Health Department said in a statement.

While the cause of the Camp Fire is still under investigation, a lawsuit has been filed against the local power company, PG&E, by fire victims claiming negligence by the utility.