Canada breaks record for annual wildfire smoke emissions

(NEW YORK) — The amount of smoke being emitted from the wildfires burning in Canada has reached the highest-ever recorded in the country as plumes make their way across the Atlantic to Europe.

The typical wildfire season in Canada reaches its peak around mid-July, but the first of the hundreds of fires currently burning in the country began to spark at the beginning of May and are still burning with fervor.

Earlier this month, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described the start of the country’s wildfire season as “unprecedented.” The warm and dry conditions will likely lead to “higher-than-normal fire activity across most of the country throughout the 2023 season,” according to fire season outlook issued by the Canadian government.

There are nearly 500 wildfires burning throughout Canada in places like British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Northwestern Territories in western Canada; as well as in Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia in eastern Canada, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre. Nearly 260 of the active fires have been deemed out of control, and more than 17.7 million acres have been scorched so far this year, fire officials said.

The emissions from these wildfires are now measuring as the largest annual estimated emissions for Canada, according to a report published Tuesday by Copernicus, the European Union’s Earth observation program. About 160 megatons of carbon emissions have been released from the smoke, the highest annual total estimated for Canada since Copernicus’s Global Fire Assimilation System began measuring wildfire smoke emissions in 2003.

Not only did the wildfire season begin to flare much earlier than usual, there is currently no end in sight due to “unusually dry conditions and high temperatures,” according to Copernicus.

The smoke from these fires has led to “significantly degraded air quality” throughout North America and even began reaching across the Atlantic to the European coast in the second week of June, according to Copernicus.

In the U.S. on Tuesday, air quality alerts were issued for the Great Lakes region, with parts of Wisconsin ranking at the worst air quality in the world on Tuesday morning, according to IQAir, a website that publishes air quality data around the world.

For more than a month, the smoke from wildfires in different regions in Canada has been making its way to the U.S. In May, air quality alerts were issued in Montana, Idaho, Colorado and Arizona due to wildfires burning in Alberta. By May 31, smoke from wildfires burning on the other side of the country, in Nova Scotia, led to the first stretch of air quality alerts in the Northeast.

By June 6, major cities in the Northeast were breaking records for deteriorating air quality due to wildfires burning in Quebec — with New York City reaching 484, with the highest end of “hazardous” AQI ratings being 500. The AQI in places like India and China are around 150 on any given day, according to IQAir.

A further intensification in the wildfires on June 21 and 22 led to a “particularly strong episode of long-range smoke” with high values of aerosol optical depth and carbon monoxide to reach Europe by Monday. Air quality in the continent is expected to be affected until Thursday, according to Copernicus.

“Our monitoring of the scale and persistence of the wildfire emissions across Canada since early May has shown how unusual it has been when compared to the two decades of our dataset,” Copernicus senior scientist Mark Parrington said in a statement. “…It is a clear reflection of the intensity of the fires that such high values of aerosol optical depth and other pollutants associated with the plume are so high as it reaches this side of the Atlantic.”

ABC News’ Tracy Wholf and Ginger Zee contributed to this report.

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