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ECMWF Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) | Visualization of CAMS data on global fires in 2019.

© ECMWF Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) | Visualization of CAMS data on global fires in 2019.

Did 2019 really bring us an unusual number of wildfires?

With heightened media attention on the unprecedented Arctic wildfires this summer followed by the Amazonian fires in autumn, concerns about Earth being ‘on fire’ are rising.

But although some regions have indeed seen exceptionally intense wildfires emitting lots of pollution, some – for example Europe and southern tropical Africa – have actually seen less fire activity than they did earlier this century. The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS*) uses satellite observations of Earth to continuously monitor wildfire activity worldwide, compare it to the 2003–2018 average values, and provide daily estimates of the pollution emitted. This article highlights the fire activity that stood out from CAMS monitoring during 2019.

In the first weeks of 2019, record-breaking dry and warm conditions in Australia contributed to wildfires across the region. CAMS observed that bushfire activity in the country was many times higher than the January average for the previous sixteen years. The aerosol forecasts from January also showed large amounts of smoke being emitted by fires in Pakistan, India and Western China.

In February, CAMS forecast that wildfires in Tasmania and New Zealand would release high levels of carbon monoxide. CAMS also saw higher-than-usual fire activity in northern Spain and southern France, and subsequently predicted inflated levels of particulate matter in the air over these regions. Notable wildfire activity in Europe continued until the end of February, especially in the north of the United Kingdom, as well as in Portugal and south-eastern Europe. However overall Europe experienced fewer fires during 2019 than typically seen during the period 2003–2018.

March saw increasing activity as the Asian fire season began. Early in the month, fires in south-eastern Asia, north-eastern China and south-eastern Russia gave rise to high levels of aerosol particles in the air over East Asia. In mid-March, CAMS forecast high levels of air pollution across south-eastern Asia, particularly Laos and Thailand, resulting from intense wildfire activity. However, the fire intensity in upper Southeast Asian countries for March 2019 was overall lower than the 2003–2018 average.

Intense fire activity in Asia resumed in May – notably in Nepal and northern India – resulting in large amounts of particulate air pollution across the Himalayan foothills. Also in May, wildfires in Central America produced a lot of smoke that CAMS forecast to affect Mexico City and spread across the Gulf of Mexico.

The fire season began for northern latitudes in late May, with thousands of square kilometres burned in northern Alberta, Canada. CAMS monitored the huge amount of smoke emitted by these fires that was at one point carried across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. Smoke is frequently transported long distances by the wind; in early June, CAMS predicted that smoke from fires in Russia would cross the Arctic Ocean to reach Alaska.

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Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS)  2019

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