Story at a glance

  • The destructive fires in Australia have released enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to equal two-thirds of the entire country’s human-caused emissions for last year.
  • In just a few months Australia’s fires have nearly equaled the total carbon released by the fires in the Amazon rainforest that captured global attention last year.
  • Climate change is making fires bigger, more severe and more frequent and researchers worry that the greenhouse gas emissions from these climate change-fueled disasters will feed back into a destructive, self-reinforcing cycle.

The fires in Australia have pumped 370 million tons of planet-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere since they began in October 2019, according to a recently released analysis. That’s more than two-thirds of the country’s 540 million tons of carbon emissions from human sources last year, NPR reports

It’s also just shy of the 392 million tons that issued forth from the Amazon rainforest during fires that captured global attention last year.

As climate change raises temperatures and exacerbates drought, fire-prone conditions like those that gave rise to Australia’s disastrous fire season are becoming more common. 

Fire has been a natural and important part of many ecosystems for millennia and scientists typically see it as being neutral in terms of its carbon emissions.

"But then over time, we expect a lot of that carbon dioxide will be drawn [back] down by plants growing again," atmospheric scientist Rebecca Buchholz told NPR. "For fires, it's all about balance."

But because of climate change, that balance may be shifting. Fire seasons are getting longer, and fires are becoming larger, more frequent and more severe.

According to a 2018 report, 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."

"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," researcher Bob Yokelson told NPR.

Destructive in this case means that instead of being neutral, fires become a source of carbon emissions, driving more warming and exacerbating the conditions that are making fires more prevalent in the first place. 

Only time will tell how much regrowth occurs in the outback to offset the fires’ emissions, but experts say some forests may not replace themselves but instead come back as scrub which may not store as much carbon.

"Climate impacts the fires, and the fires can potentially impact climate, and we don't know where we're going," Buchholz, an Australian, told NPR. "It's a moving goal post all the time, and we haven't reached that new balance point."

Published on Jan 17, 2020