How Much CO2 Have the Australian Fires Released?
Mar 05 2020 Read 8999 Times
The bushfires that continue to rampage through parts of Australia are the most severe on record for decades and the amount of CO2 released by the infernos could see the country’s carbon emissions double from 2018 figures. That’s the damning predictions made by the Global Fire Emissions Database (GFED), who used historical data, satellite imaging and computer models to reach their conclusions.
In fact, the emissions resulting from the fires could account for as much as 2% of the acceleration in total global emissions in 2020, say those behind the latest report. That estimate paints the extent of the problem facing Australia in lurid colours, while the authorities continue their hard-fought struggle to extinguish the blazes once and for all.
Last year saw Australia break records for its hottest ever day, as well as its hottest and driest ever year. The widespread elevated temperatures and accompanying drought sparked the devastating bushfires, which have so far consumed 46 million acres (18.6 million hectares) and claimed the lives of at least 34 people and countless animals.
While the short-term effects of the fires are still being keenly felt, their long-term consequences could be even more devastating. To date, the fires have been responsible for the emission of an estimated 400 tonnes of carbon dioxide, while the GFED believe that the final figure come the end of the year could reach as much as 900 tonnes or beyond, which would set a new record in the modern era of satellite imaging.
For context, 2018 saw Australia emit a total of 421 tonnes of CO2, making it the 16th biggest emitter on the planet (just ahead of the UK). Interestingly, that figure does not include fire-related emissions – as is the norm with any analysis of greenhouse gas emissions trends – since the pollutants released during such incidents in the dry season are normally reabsorbed the following wet season.
However, the fact that much of the combusted regions are carbon sinks that have been storing huge amounts of the substance for many years means that much higher levels of CO2 have been emitted this time around. It also means that the affected areas may take decades to recover their carbon-absorbing properties – and that timescale is dependent on bushfires not striking the same spot again in the near future.
Uncertainty reigns supreme
Despite their pessimistic predictions, the scientists behind the study have stressed that it’s very difficult for them to predict with any great certainty the extent of the fallout from the bushfires. While our ability to monitor black carbon and other harmful contaminants has progressed immensely in recent years, the exact emissions generated by the bushfires will depend largely on the location of the burnt area, as well as the species of flora and fauna which were incinerated inside it.
Obtaining that kind of data to create more precise projections takes time, says Niels Andela – a NASA scientists who also works as a researcher for the GFED – who concedes that their estimations could be out by as much as 50%. However, Andela also pointed out that two independent reports on the bushfires came to similar conclusions as the GFED findings, adding to his confidence in their accuracy.
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