Story at a glance

  • The country’s emissions could hit 1 billion tons by the end of the fire season.
  • Researchers worry large releases of carbon emissions could overwhelm natural reservoirs that store carbon dioxide.
  • The risk of wildfires is expected to remain high for months as Australia is only halfway through the summer.

The devastating Australian wildfires are estimated to have released nearly double the country’s annual fossil-fuel emissions into the Earth’s atmosphere, according to scientists. 

Researchers at the Global Fire Emissions Database estimate the blazes have unleashed about 900 million tons of carbon dioxide since late last year. That’s compared to the 540 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions the country released from electricity, transportation, agriculture and industry from 2018 to 2019.  

Australia’s national fire-related emissions have averaged about 485 million tons a year, according to the European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, which tracks greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. On Jan. 6, the agency reported Australia’s wildfires had released about 400 million tons of carbon dioxide. Since then, fires have scorched another 16 million acres, prompting researchers to double their estimates. 

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“We have seen years with extremely high carbon dioxide emissions — it’s certainly not normal, but these numbers are not at all impossible,” Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth system science at Stanford University, told NBC News. “The real question is: What’s normal now?” 

Jackson said it’s possible the country’s emissions could hit 1 billion tons by the end of the fire season.

Researchers worry the uptick in heat-trapping greenhouse gas could speed up climate change as global warming intensifies wildfires and lengthens the season. Researchers are also worried large releases of carbon emissions could overwhelm natural reservoirs that store carbon dioxide. Not all carbon dioxide from wildfires moves to the atmosphere. Carbon is naturally stored in the atmosphere, oceans, plants, rocks and living organisms. 

The fire risk is expected to remain high for months as Australia is only halfway through its summer, and temperatures traditionally peak in January and February. 

The wildfires have killed dozens of people and destroyed more than 2,500 homes. Three American firefighters were killed Thursday when a plane helping battle the fires crashed in New South Wales. 

“Is this an exceptional season, or is this where we’re heading in Australia, the western U.S. and some other places?” Jackson told NBC News. “If these runaway fires become more normal, we’re in for a very different world.” 

Published on Jan 23, 2020