Article: Australia's Wildfires Are Releasing Vast Amounts Of Carbon

Climate Change, Wildfires // 10 mins

Smoke from the ongoing firestorm in Australia is obscuring skies halfway around the world. Satellite images from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show a haze from the deadly fires spreading over South America. The swirling plume is nearly the size of the continental United States.

Sydney Fires
Much of New South Wales, Australia, including the Sydney Opera House, lay under a shroud of smoke Thursday. The state remains under severe or very high fire danger warnings as more than 60 fires continue to burn within its borders. Cassie Trotter / Getty Images

All fires emit smoke — a combination of thousands of compounds, including climate-warming greenhouse gases. But the sheer scale of the emissions, and the severity of the fires causing them, are concerning climate scientists around the world.

Already, atmospheric watchdogs say, the fires have pumped hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide into Earth's atmosphere.

"For these fires in the southeast south (of Australia), probably we are in the ballpark of 400 million tons of carbon," says Dr. Pep Canadell, a lead scientist with Australia's national research agency and the executive director of the Global Carbon Project, which tracks greenhouse gas emissions globally.

To put that figure in perspective, Australia's total emissions from man-made sources last year was roughly 540 million tons. So this year's fires, fueled by record-high temperatures and drought, have already surpassed two-thirds of that amount.

But perhaps more concerning is that many of these fires, including two that merged into a massive "megafire," are burning in areas that could take decades or longer to regrow.

Forest ecologists and atmospheric scientists generally view wildfire as being carbon neutral. As fires burn, chewing through structures and vegetation, they spit out vast amounts of carbon and other compounds in their smoke.

"But then over time, we expect a lot of that carbon dioxide will be drawn [back] down by plants growing again," says Rebecca Buchholz, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, based in Boulder, Colo. "For fires, it's all about balance."

But there are concerns that balance is shifting.

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Published on NPR on January 12, 2020.