A peatland wildfire in northern Scotland released into the atmosphere the equivalent to six days’ worth of Scotland’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
The findings came from analysis for the WWF by Ricardo on a fire in the Flow Country during May 2019, which burned for over six days across 5,000 hectares.
The area is under consideration for World Heritage Site status for its globally-rare type of blanket peatland and is estimated to store 400 million tonnes of carbon.
The study used an approach based on International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) methods making a low-range estimate of carbon loss at 174,000 tonnes of carbon lost from the peatland into the atmosphere during the fire.
The level of climate emissions from peatland wildfires can depend on how severe the fire is and prior condition of the peat.
Healthy peatlands in good condition will release around five times less carbon during wildfires, compared to a peat bog that has been drained, according to the WWF.
More severe fires will leave bare peat, damaging the ability of peatlands to take carbon out the atmosphere, and requiring restoration to return the peatland more quickly to good health.
A further study has now been launched by scientists at the University of the Highlands and Islands and will examine how different styles of land management have affected the impact of the fire.
Regarding air pollution from the fires, scientists say there was ‘no notable impact’ on human health from the smoke, due to the remoteness of the area.
As climate change is increasing the frequency of these types of wildfires in the UK, WWF Scotland is calling for urgent action to protect and restore these vital carbon stores, including increased, multi-year funding from the Scottish Government, of at least £20m per year.
Gina Hanrahan, Head of Policy for WWF Scotland said: ‘We’re facing twin climate and nature crises. People and nature in the UK are already feeling the impacts of climate change, and we have little time left to act if we are to avoid its worst effects.
‘This analysis puts into stark figures the importance of our peatlands and the huge cost to climate and nature when something goes wrong. Reports suggest that the vegetation is recovering well, at least in some areas, and we’ve had a lucky escape – this fire could have been even more damaging for our atmosphere.’
Read the report here.