Nevada Wildfires July 2017

Wildfires in Nevada caused carbon dioxide (CO2) to reach levels as high as 742 ppm on July 12, 2017 (green circle image on the right).

At that spot in Nevada, carbon monoxide (CO) levels were as high as 30.43 ppm (green circle image right).

Numerous wildfires hit the Northern Hemisphere in July 2017. News coverage focuses on loss of lives, evacuations, electricity outages, etc. Here's a typical news report.
Importantly, global warming increases the intensity and frequency of wildfires, while wildfires further speed up global warming, due to loss of vegetation and erosion, and due to emissions associated with wildfires.

The satellite image below shows the smoke plumes and the charred area resulting from the wildfires in Nevada.

These wildfires illustrate the amount of emissions that can be caused by wildfires.

The google maps image below further shows where the fires were burning.


Mackenzie River Wildfires July 2017

The image below shows temperatures recorded at two locations over the Mackenzie River on July 7, 2017, one of 32.6°C or 90.8°F at the mouth of the Mackenzie River and another one of 34.7°C or 94.5°F further inland. Warm water from rivers can substantially warm up the sea surface and thus melt the sea ice.

Due to high temperatures, wildfires broke out near the Mackenzie River, as illustrated by the satellite image below.

Rain Over Arctic Ocean

The Damage of Wildfires

Wildfires can cause a lot of damage, they can kill people and wildlife and can destroy entire ecosystems. Wildfires also come with a lot of emissions, including soot that darkens the surface when settling down, thus further speeding up warming.

As the Arctic warms up more rapidly than the rest of the world, the temperature difference between the Equator and the North Pole decreases, which in turn weakens the speed at which the north polar jet stream circumnavigates the globe. This makes the jet stream more wavy with loops that can bringing warm air high up into the Arctic.

Changes to the jet stream in turn cause further changes. What was previously seen as extreme weather is becoming increasingly common, such as heat waves and droughts that make vegetation dry and vulnerable to pests and diseases, with high temperatures subsequently resulting in strong winds, storms and lightning.

A combination of heat waves and wildfires can strongly speed op warming, in a number of ways:
  • Warm air reaching high latitudes results in droughts, heat waves and wildfires. The heat from heat waves and wildfires makes permafrost melt, resulting in albedo loss.
  • Wildfires cause a range of emissions, including CO2, CO, methane (CH4) and soot, which can cause strong additional warming, especially locally.
  • Loss of vegetation can result in soil erosion, which can be aggravated by storms that are becoming more prominent due to global warming. 
  • Char and soot from wildfires blackens land, vegetation, snow cover and sea ice, causing more sunlight to be absorbed, rather than reflected back into space as before, thus also causing albedo loss and speeding up warming and melting.
  • Warmer rainwater can, as a result, flow into rivers and warm up the Arctic Ocean.

Kazakhstan Wildfires July 2017

The highest levels of carbon dioxide recorded by satellite are associated with wildfires.

Wildfires caused carbon dioxide to reach levels as high as 746 ppm in Kazakhstan on July 11, 2017 (green circle on image on the right). Carbon monoxide levels in the area were as high as 20.96 ppm on July 10, 2017.

The satellite image below shows wildfires in Kazakhstan on July 9, 2017.

The satellite images show wildfires in Kazakhstan on July 11, 2017.


Wildfires in Russia's Far East August 2016

Wildfires can add huge amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and black carbon (BC or soot) into the atmosphere.

While CO and soot are not included as greenhouse gases by the IPCC, they can have strong warming impact. CO acts as a scavenger of hydroxyl, thus extending the lifetime of methane. BC results from biomass burning, which a study by Mark Jacobson found to cause 20 year global warming of ~0.4 K. Moreover, BC has a darkening effect when settling on snow and ice, making that less sunlight gets reflected back into space, which accelerates warming. This hits the Arctic particularly hard during the Northern Summer, given the high insolation at high latitudes at that time of year.

The image below shows carbon dioxide levels as high as 713 ppm and carbon monoxide levels as high as 32,757 ppb on August 12, 2016, at the location marked by the green circle, i.e. the location of wildfires in Russia's Far East.

As said, wildfires can also emit huge amounts of methane. The image below shows methane levels as high as 2230 ppb at 766 mb.

The magenta-colored areas on above image and the image below indicate that these high methane levels are caused by these wildfires in Russia's Far East. The image below shows methane levels as high as 2517 ppb at 586 mb.

Methane levels as high as 2533 ppb were recorded that day (at 469 mb), compared to a mean global peak of 1857 ppb that day.

Wildfires in Russia's Far East

Wildfires in Indonesia 2015

Analysis by Global Fire Data found that the 2015 Indonesian fires produced more CO2e (i.e. CO2 equivalent of, in this case, CO2, CH4 and N2O) than the 2013 CO2 emissions from fossil fuel by nations such as Japan and Germany. On 26 days in August and September 2015, emissions from Indonesian fires exceeded the average daily emissions from all U.S. economic activity, as shown by the WRI image below.

A study calculated that Indonesia’s 2015 fires killed 100,000 people.

Methane emissions from wildfires can sometimes be broken down relatively quickly, especially in the tropics, due to the high levels of hydroxyl in the atmosphere there. Conversily, methane from wildfires at higher latitudes can persist much longer and will have strong warming impact, especially at higher latitudes.

Similarly, CO2 emissions from wildfires in the tropics can sometimes be partly compensated for by regrowth of vegetation after the fires. However, regrowth can be minimal in times of drought, when forests are burned to make way for other land uses or when peat is burned, and especially at higher latitudes where the growth season is short and weather conditions can be harsh. Carbon in peat lands was built up over thousands of years and even years of regrowth cannot compensate for this loss.

Another study concludes that there is strong correlation between fire risk for South America and high sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean.

Wildfires in Russia's Far East

The image below pictures how another feedback loop occurs as accelerated warming in the Arctic alters the jet stream, resulting in more extreme weather, in particular heatwaves, that cause wildfires. These wildfires cause all kinds of emissions, including carbon dioxide, dust, soot, volatile organic compounds, methane and other ozone precursors. The greenhouse gases accelerate warming, while aerosols can have a particularly strong impact in the Arctic when they settle on land, snow and ice and cause albedo changes that further accelerate warming in the Arctic. Incomplete burning results in carbon monoxide, which depletes hydroxyl that could otherwise have broken down methane.

Feedbacks in the Arctic

The situation is dire and calls for comprehensive and effective action as described at the Climate Plan.


• Wildfires

• Rain Over Arctic Ocean

• Wildfires in Russia's Far East

• Effects of biomass burning on climate, accounting for heat and moisture fluxes, black and brown carbon, and cloud absorption effects, by Mark Z. Jacobson (2014)

• 2016 fire risk for South America

• Global Fire Data - 2015 Indonesian fires

• Indonesia’s Fire Outbreaks Producing More Daily Emissions than Entire US Economy (2015)

• Indonesia’s 2015 fires killed 100,000 people, study finds

• Smoke from 2015 Indonesian fires may have caused 100,000 premature deaths

• Wildfire Danger Increasing

• Smoke Blankets North America

• More on Wildfires

• Wildfires even more damaging

• Wildfires in Canada affect the Arctic

• The Threat of Wildfires in the North

• Russia: 74 million acres burned through August 2012

• Earth on Fire

• Fires are raging again across Russia

• Turning forest waste into biochar

• Feedbacks in the Arctic

• Climate Plan

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