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Australia wildfire emissions push scientists to ask: How much more Earth can take?

Image: NSW On Severe Bushfire Alert As Weather Conditions Worsen
General view of the Dunn Road fire in Mount Adrah, Australia on Jan. 10, 2020.   -   Copyright  Sam Mooy Getty Images file
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The historic wildfires in Australia likely unleashed about 900 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, equivalent to nearly double the country's total yearly fossil fuel emissions, according to scientists.

Though some of these emissions could be eventually offset by forest regrowth, researchers worry that the uptick in the heat-trapping greenhouse gas could accelerate climate change and portend a "new normal" for yearly emissions, particularly as global warming intensifies wildfires and lengthens fire seasons.

The full impact of the unprecedented fires in southeastern Australia is not yet known, but Rob Jackson, a professor of earth system science at Stanford University, said emissions from the blazes could hit 1 billion tons by the end of the season. For comparison,Australia's greenhouse gas emissions from electricity, transportation, agriculture and the industrial sector collectively totaled about 540 million tons from March 2018 to March 2019.

"We have seen years with extremely high carbon dioxide emissions — it's certainly not normal, but these numbers are not at all impossible," Jackson said of the current wildfire season. "The real question is: What's normal now?"

All wildfires release greenhouse gases as they burn, but researchers are concerned that huge pulses of carbon emissions from devastating fire seasons made worse by climate change could overwhelm natural reservoirs that store carbon dioxide and outpace the planet's ability to offset these extreme events.

Over the past decade, Australia's national fire-related emissions averaged roughly 485 million tons each year, according to the European Union's Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), which tracks air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. On Jan. 6, CAMS announced that the country's wildfires hadalready released about 400 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Since then, fires have raged in the states of New South Wales and Victoria, scorching a total of 16 million acres, leading scientists to more than double initial estimates of the fire-related emissions.

Though recent heavy rain has helped control some of the blazes, Australia is only halfway through its summer season, and temperatures typically peak in January and February, which means the fire risk will likely remain high for months to come.

But not all carbon dioxide from wildfires lingers in the atmosphere. The planet's global carbon cycle is a complex system in which carbon is naturally stored and exchanged among the atmosphere, land, ocean, rocks and living organisms. This system helps regulate temperatures on Earth and is crucial to sustaining life on the planet.

About half of the world's carbon emissions are naturally absorbed by plants and the ocean. But human activities, such as burning fossil fuels, and extreme events such as intense wildfire seasons are upsetting the delicate balance of the carbon cycle, pumping huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

"It's just sort of luck that land and oceans are taking up half of what we emit," said Richard Houghton, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts. "Warming is occurring at half the rate that it would be if we didn't have these land and ocean sinks."

Studies have found that even as global emissions have increased, roughly 50 percent of carbon dioxide is still sequestered by plants and the ocean. In other words, the more humans emit, the more carbon these reservoirs also seem to take up. Scientists have struggled to explain why this generous absorption takes place, and it's also not known whether this will happen indefinitely, or if the planet will reach a tipping point.

A military helicopter flies above a burning woodchip mill in Eden, in Australia\'s New South Wales state on Jan. 6, 2020.
A military helicopter flies above a burning woodchip mill in Eden, in Australia\'s New South Wales state on Jan. 6, 2020.Saeed Khan

"For reasons we don't entirely understand, the carbon system has been pretty robust so far, but that doesn't mean it will go on like that forever," Houghton said. "There are lots of arguments for why these carbon sinks will become saturated, but it all remains a bit of a puzzle."

Yet, even if oceans are effective reservoirs, inundating these bodies of water with carbon dioxide has other negative effects, according to Houghton. When carbon dioxide mixes with ocean water, it changes the ocean's chemistry and makes the water more acidic, which can be harmful for corals, shellfish and other sea creatures, he said. A recent study found that the waters off California are acidifying twice as fast as elsewhere on the planet, threatening critical fisheries along the coast, and coral reefs are under assault around the world from bleaching events driven by greenhouse gas emissions and warming ocean temperatures.

Scientists will be closely monitoring the emissions from Australia's fires. Though it's estimated that nearly 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide may have been released from the blazes, other conditions around the world could offset some of those emissions.

"If there are bad fires in Australia releasing a lot of carbon, it may be that somewhere else is wetter than normal and is taking up more carbon," Houghton said.

Forest regrowth can also offset emissions, but given the severity of the Australian wildfires, it could take decades for vegetation to repopulate the scorched areas, according to Guido van der Werf, a scientist at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, who helped develop theGlobal Fire Emissions Database, which tracks greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution from wildfires around the world.

Over the past several decades, the amount of land burned in wildfires worldwide has decreased, largely due to changes in land use, such as savannas that have been converted for agriculture. But in certain regions of the world, including Canada, the western United States and Australia, climate change is increasing the frequency of intense fires and lengthening the fire seasons.

It's too early to know if Australia's fires will result in a net increase in global carbon emissions but van der Werf predicts that the blazes will contribute to a blip.

Fire-related emissions around the world currently account for about 20 percent of global fossil fuel emissions, but if climate change increases the severity of wildfires, these blazes could become an even greater contributor to global warming.

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