Sustainability Climate Change

North American boreal forest fires could emit huge amounts of greenhouse gases, study finds

Researchers predict wildfires in in Alaska and Canada will release large amounts of carbon dioxide over the next three decades.
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Story at a glance

  • A new study suggests fires in North American boreal forests will emit substantial amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, adding an additional challenge for countries to reach their carbon emission goals. 

  • The wildfires could release nearly 12 gigatons of new carbon emissions by 2050.

  • The study’s authors argue that improving fire mitigation in Alaska, which served as the primary area of study for the paper, will help decrease overall carbon emissions. 

When most people think of carbon emissions, images of noxious fumes rolling out of car mufflers, waves of fire bursting from oil wells or plumes of smoke spewing out of oil refinery towers come to mind.   

But there are other ways carbon dioxide enters the Earth’s atmosphere that should take up more space in conversations on how humanity can work to push back against the effects of climate change.   

One of those ways is through wildfires in carbon-rich North American boreal forests in Alaska and Canada.


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Boreal forest fires could emit worrisome amounts of carbon dioxide into Earth’s atmosphere by mid-century, scientists say, as the forests store between 30 to 40 percent of the world’s land-based carbon, most of which is contained in the soil.  

By 2050, the burned area in the Alaskan boreal forests could increase as much as 169 percent and burned area in Canada could increase by 150 percent, according to a new study published in the journal Science Advances.  

The wildfires could in turn release nearly 12 gigatons of new carbon emissions — equivalent to the annual emissions of 2.6 billion cars — into the atmosphere. That figure represents about 3 percent of the remaining global carbon budget.  

That “budget” is in reference to the amount of greenhouse gases climate scientists say humanity can release into the atmosphere before the planet’s surface temperature warms by 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Reaching that level of heat would trigger numerous disastrous climate-related catastrophes.   

To avoid this, the world needs to reach carbon-emissions of net-zero by mid-century, a goal that is proving to be difficult to achieve.   

“It really jeopardizes our ability to meet our climate goals and our emissions reduction targets,” Carly Phillips, a fellow at the Western States Climate Team at the Union of Concerned Scientists and lead author of the study, told Changing America.  

Fires have worsened in North America in recent years, particularly in the Western United States, and boreal forests have experienced a doubling in burning, the study states.  

The study’s authors argue that improving fire mitigation in Alaska, which served as the primary area of study for the paper, will help decrease overall carbon emissions. 


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