Carbon Emissions from Wildfires: What You Need to Know
Published:September 19, 2023
Edited:November 8, 2023
Uncover the impact of wildfires on carbon emissions. Explore how wildfires contribute to climate change and affect our environment, with expert guidance from the WFCA.
Climate change has been linked to an increase in wildfires, which in turn contribute to carbon emissions. These fires release significant amounts of gases into the atmosphere, exacerbating the greenhouse effect and further fueling climate change.
Wildfires and Carbon Emissions: The Science
When wildfires ignite, they consume vegetation and organic matter, releasing carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. CO2 is the primary greenhouse gas responsible for trapping heat and contributing to global warming.1 Wildfires can release methane (CH4), another potent greenhouse gas.
The combustion process during wildfires involves the rapid oxidation of organic materials, such as trees, grass, and shrubs. This process releases the stored carbon in these materials in the form of CO2. The intensity and duration of the fire, as well as the type of vegetation burned, can influence the amount of carbon emissions.2
Wildfires also have indirect effects on carbon emissions. When forests burn, they not only release carbon stored in vegetation but also reduce the carbon sink, which is the capacity of ecosystems to absorb CO2 through photosynthesis. This reduction can further contribute to the overall increase in atmospheric CO2 levels.3
Latest Findings Regarding Wildfires and Carbon Emissions
A May 2023 study by the journal Environmental Research Letters offered valuable insights into the connection between the climate crisis and wildfires. The study reveals that climate change plays a significant role in intensifying wildfires and increasing carbon emissions.6 As the climate continues to warm, it creates drier conditions and extends the duration of fire seasons.
This study emphasizes the urgent need to address climate change to mitigate the devastating impact of wildfires. Implementing measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote sustainable practices can help combat the climate crisis and protect ecosystems from the destructive consequences of wildfires.7
How Climate Change is Increasing Fires and Carbon Emissions
Rising temperatures, prolonged droughts, and changing weather patterns create ideal conditions for wildfires to ignite and spread. As vegetation becomes drier and more susceptible to burning, fires become more frequent and intense. The connection between climate change and wildfires lies in the carbon emissions they produce.4
The carbon emissions from wildfires can offset the greenhouse gas reductions achieved through other means.1 For example, California’s efforts to reduce emissions from transportation and industry can be counteracted by the significant carbon emissions resulting from wildfires. This creates a challenging situation where progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions is negated by the carbon released during these devastating fires.5
To understand the full impact of climate change on wildfires and carbon emissions, it is crucial to consider the broader context. This includes examining the interplay between rising temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, and the increased likelihood of extreme weather events. These factors collectively contribute to the intensification of wildfires and the subsequent release of carbon into the atmosphere.
- Inside Climate News, “How Wildfires Can Affect Climate Change (and Vice Versa).” Accessed September 5, 2023.
- Earth, “Discovery: Massive Amounts of Methane Gas Spews from Wildfires.” Accessed September 5, 2023.
- Swansea University, “Understanding How Forest Fires Affect Carbon Emissions and Climate Change.” Accessed September 6, 2023.
- Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, “Wildfires and Climate Change.” Accessed September 6, 2023.
- LA Times, “A Single, Devastating California Fire Season Wiped Out Years of Efforts to Cut Emissions.” Accessed September 6, 2023.
- IOP Science Environmental Research Letters, “Quantifying the Contribution of Major Carbon Producers to Increased in Vapor Pressure Deficit and Burned Area in Western US and Southwestern Canadian Forests.” Accessed September 7, 2023.
- LA Times, “Almost 40% of Land Burned by Western Wildfires can be Traced to Carbon Emissions.” Accessed September 7, 2023.