Europe is burning. We’ve seen the headlines about catastrophic fires from the Mediterranean to the Arctic. Blazes are also ravaging the Great Northern Forest from Sweden in the west, to the Russian Far East.

Satellite images show wildfire over Sweden © on 2018-07-17

Satellite images show wildfire over Sweden

The question we have heard lately is whether these fires are caused by climate change. Yes, climate change can be one of the triggers: there is evidence that extreme weather is becoming more common, and can create conditions – like heatwaves – that increase the risk of fires.

But the mechanism also works the other way. Catastrophic fires are changing the climate and destroying the forest, both the boreal and rainforest regions, that are vital for the planet. Fire emissions speed up climate change, which in turn leads to increased fire frequency, fire season length and cumulative area burned.

It means that wildfires are not only local disasters; they influence the entire planet. Direct wildfire CO2 emissions are up to 25% of the total annual CO2 emissions. These emissions are hidden in a sense that they are not properly accounted for within the IPCC. Recent years have been marked by major fire catastrophes. Having common roots, every fire catastrophe is an element of a global problem which needs to be regarded accordingly.

This year in Russia, 12,6 million hectares have burned and 2,9 million hectares are still burning now. That is almost twice the area of the Republic of Ireland. What is worse, only a small part of those are being fought. According to NASA, unusually intense fires in Russia this year sent smoke halfway around the world. The winds are also carrying a lot of black carbon to the Arctic which again contributes to climate change.

Sweden is right now experiencing a record-breaking fire season like nothing seen before. On some days it was burning in 60 locations at the same time. 

Sweden has asked help to extinguish the fires from other European Union countries at the same time that the equipment and manpower are desperately needed in Greece. It seems that we just aren’t prepared for this.

But there are some things we can do. About 90% of wildland fires are man-made, so it’s up to us to stop them. Be careful if you live or travel in an area where there is a risk of fires. Forest fire warnings are to be taken seriously.

We can also take the fires seriously in the Paris agreement. Wildfire CO2 emissions and black carbon emissions have to be taken into account in climate agreements and all climate conservation plans.

You can also help Greenpeace volunteers stop the fires. Donate to volunteer firefighters and support the movement of local activists serving their communities.

And, of course, we need a healthy Great Northern Forest to stop the climate change. Join us:

Juha Aromaa is the communications lead for the Great Northern Forest project