Great, Now Australia's Bushfires Are Fueling Climate Change

Illustration for article titled Great, Now Australia's Bushfires Are Fueling Climate Change
Photo: Getty

Australia is in the grips of a climate emergency. Bushfires in New South Wales and Queensland have killed six people and made the air toxic.


Climate change helped fuel the fires, and now the fires are fueling climate change. The bushfires have emitted 250 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere, according to NASA data shared with the Guardian. That’s almost half of the country’s yearly emissions.

Traditionally, carbon emitted from bushfires have been offset by forests regrowing and sucking up carbon dioxide. But hot, dry conditions that have come with climate change mean that forests may no longer be able to fulfill that role. Pep Canadell, a scientist at Australia science CSIRO, told the Guardian that many areas that burned won’t recover to their pre-fire state, throwing the whole system out of balance.

This kind of carbon feedback loop, where we destroy the Earth’s ability to absorb carbon as we emit more of it, is becoming more common as the climate crisis gets worse. Wildfires in California resulted in a similar uptick in carbon pollution last year, with emissions from the 2018 wildfire season alone producing “more than nine times more emissions than were reduced in 2017” according to a report released earlier this year. The state has also seen tens of millions of trees die off in recent years.

For Australia, emissions from the fires will only continue to rise in the coming months. The bushfires have already burned over 6.7 million acres of land, and they could last through next March or longer. It would take days of steady rain to put the fires out, the Guardian reported separately. But there’s no rain in sight—Australia is in the middle of an extreme drought, and the country’s Bureau of Meteorology is forecasting that the weather from now until March will be drier and warmer than average.

That could mean more fires, which more more carbon emissions, which could mean more dry and hot weather, which could mean more fires. Welcome to the future.


Staff writer, Earther


>…Pep Canadell, a scientist at Australia science CSIRO, told the Guardian that many areas that burned won’t recover to their pre-fire state, throwing the whole system out of balance.…<

Yes it will. It’ll just take a few years.

Australia’s ecology has evolved to burn. There are entire species (Jarrah, Banksia, Marri, Wandoo...) whose seeds won’t even crack open and germinate until they have been burnt in a hot bushfire. These eucalyptus trees are full of oil so they burn quickly and hotly but not so long that the tree inside is killed.

The trees have epicormic buds under their very thick (so fire resistant) bark that spring into life and quickly grow new branches and leaves. This can take only a few days. A seemingly dead tree will suddenly have a profusion of green all over as these temporary branches and leaves (most of these die off again after a few months once the main body and branches of the tree get going again) kickstarts photosynthesis into action.

Other species (native grass trees for instance) have their life underground in lignotubers. What you see above ground is just the photosynthetic part of the plant. Again they are full of oil so that they burn to ash quickly and not kill the plant underground. Again they can quickly spring back with new growth.

Bushfires benefit the fauna as well by burning out fallen logs and trees to make hollows in which cockatoos and assorted marsupials will nest and shelter. Kangaroos will activate dormant embryos and have a population boom as they take advantage of the new growth. Eagles and hawks will feast on smaller species that are now exposed (there’s even a species of hawk that knows how to start its own bushfires just for this purpose).

We had a major fire here go through the Lesmurdie Falls National Park in 2009. It looked devastated. Greedy real estate developers immediately petitioned the government to allow them to bulldoze and build on it (Effin’ bastards...). But within a year the site was recovering nicely and now 10 years later you’d never know there’d been a major fire through apart from a few scattered and blackened trees.

This is normal for us and ‘Pep’ should know better...