News 2015-09-29

Biomass burning in Eastern Europe pollute the air in the Nordic countries

Large-scale biomass burning in Eastern Europe is an important source for polluted air over the northern hemisphere. Over the past decade several major fires, especially in southern Russia, have affected air quality and have had serious consequences for human health and ecosystems in the Nordic countries.

The fires were due mainly to a reckless burning of agricultural residues that spread and became large-scale forest fires.

Researchers from three Nordic research institutions, including IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute, and the Bellona Foundation, have been commissioned by the Nordic Council of Ministers to examine the link between large-scale burning of agricultural residues with accompanying forest fires in Eastern Europe and the increased levels of air pollution in the Nordic countries. Results from remote analyzes show that the fires continued unabated during the 2000s. Under certain weather conditions, with stable high pressure over Russia, the polluted air was transported from the burning areas to the north of Europe.

– This is an area where we need joint efforts. In Russia, despite being banned, it is still common practice to burn waste on farmland before the start of the new planting season. Often people lose control of the fires, resulting in large-scale forest fires, says Per Erik Karlsson, researcher at IVL.

The fires cause among other things large emissions of harmful particles, soot affecting the climate, and different forms of nitrogen that affect ecosystems and give rise to tropospheric ozone.

In a new report, researchers describe a contamination episode that occurred in the spring of 2006. An area of 2 million hectares of forest and agricultural land in Russia and the countries around then burned. The highly polluted air was transported by the winds to northern Europe, all the way to Iceland and Svalbard. High concentrations of black carbon and tropospheric ozone, as well as a large deposition of nitrogen were measured in the northern Scandinavian forests. Furthermore, the concentrations of particles were very high and health problems linked to high levels of particulate matter were documented in Edinburgh, as well as in Stockholm and south of Finland.

– The fire in 2006 was really not unusually large, but the weather conditions prevailing at that time, with a strong high pressure over Russia, led to much of the polluted air reaching the Nordic region. It is not unlikely that this could happen again, says Per Erik Karlsson.

To overcome these fires, the Nordic countries and the EU have to support Russia and its neighboring countries to stop the burning of agricultural waste and invest in better fire prevention.

Read the report:"Air Pollution in the Nordic Countries"

For more information, please contact:
Per Erik Karlsson, pererik.karlsson@ivl.se