Smoke from Australia’s wildfires clouds skies halfway around the world. A haze from the devastating wildfires can be seen spreading over South America on satellite images from NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.) Hundreds of millions of tons of CO2 or carbon dioxide are already released and pumped into the atmosphere, according to atmospheric watchdogs.
The size of the swirling cloud of smoke is almost the same as that of the continental U.S.
The smoke emitted from every fire contains climate-warming greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and thousands of other hazardous compounds. However, the severity of the Australian wildfires and the scale of the emissions are very concerning, according to climate scientists.
For these fires in the southeast south (of Australia), probably we are in the ballpark of 400 million tons of carbon.
The total emissions of carbon from human-made sources in Australia last year was around 540 million tons. The ongoing fires and the record high-temperatures have already exceeded 2/3 of that amount.
However, the most concerning fact is that two of these fires that merged into a huge “megafire,” among the rest, are affecting areas that could, at the very least, require decades to regrow.
Atmospheric scientists and forest ecologists are seeing these fires as being carbon neutral. While fires are burning, they release massive amounts of compounds, including carbon in their smoke.
The scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Rebecca Buchholz says:
But then over time, we expect a lot of that carbon dioxide will be drawn [back] down by plants growing again. For fires, it’s all about balance.
However, the concerning part is that balance may be shifting.
Wildfires are burning more severely and frequently around the world due to climate change. The areas that can be affected by fires and the length of time they can exist is increasing because of the same reason.
According to the State of the Climate report by the Bureau of Meteorology and the leading research agency in Australia in 2018:
There has been a long-term increase in extreme fire weather and in the length of the fire season across large parts of Australia since the 1950s.
In the meantime, human development is expanding, the precipitation patterns are shifting, and the world is getting hotter. All this makes the regrow process significantly more difficult for some forests.
Here’s what the researcher and professor at the University of Montana, Bob Yokelson has in mind:
We could be changing the atmosphere with fossil fuels in such a way that fires in landscape ecosystems go from being neutral or harmless, in terms of climate, to something that is destructive.
In that way, we have a positive feedback loop – wildfire would increase the climate-warming emissions, fueling the increasing amount that people are releasing into the atmosphere, thus worsening the future fires.
Even though we can’t say if the ongoing Australian wildfires will become a net source of carbon, or if the affected areas and forests will regrow, one thing’s for sure – the current situation is very concerning.
Here’s what Rebecca Buchholz who’s from Australia has to say about the whole situation:
Climate impacts the fires, and the fires can potentially impact climate, and we don’t know where we’re going. It’s a moving goal post all the time, and we haven’t reached that new balance point.
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