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Australian Fires Release Millions Of Tons Of CO2

February 26, 2009

A top Australian scientist said Thursday that the nation’s bushfires, which have devastated Victoria state, have released millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. 

The Victoria fires, many of which are still burning, have killed more than 200 people and were the worst in Australia’s history.

Mark Adams of the University of Sydney said forest fires could become a growing source of carbon pollution as the Earth continues to warm, triggering a vicious cycle in which forests might no longer be CO2 sinks, further accelerating the rise of atmospheric greenhouse gases.

“With increasing concerns about rising CO2, rising temperatures and reduced rainfall in many of the forested areas, then we could well see much greater emissions from forest fires,” said Adams, dean of the Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, in an interview with Reuters.

Firefighters were fighting seven wildfires in Victoria on Wednesday, hoping to control the flames ahead of expected higher temperatures on Friday.

“Scientists worldwide are worried about fires and forests. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Arctic tundra fires, or peat fires in Kalimantan or bushfires in Australia,” said Adams, who has worked with the Bushfire Co-operative Research Center.

In a submission last year to the United Nations, the Australian government said that in 2003 wildfires released 190 million tons of CO2-equivalent, about one-third of the nation’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions.

These large, one-off releases of CO2 and other greenhouse gases like methane are not currently represented in Australia’s annual list of national greenhouse gas emissions.  Had they been taken into account, the nation would largely exceed its emission limits under the Kyoto Protocol, the United Nations’ major climate change treaty.

For this reason, Australia is seeking amendments to rules on land use change under the U.N. so that only human activities that “can be practicably influenced” are included.

Adams said that U.N. climate negotiations set for the end of the year in Copenhagen, Denmark, which seek to establish a successor pact to Kyoto, should include the mounting forest fire threat and discuss ways to improve legal frameworks to address the problem.

Adams, who has studied the amount of carbon Australia’s forests and soil can store, has estimated Australia’s 2003 fires, which ravaged the capital Canberra, and blazes in 2006-07 released roughly 550 million tons of CO2.

The current fires had already destroyed hundreds of thousands of hectares in areas with total carbon content of 200 tons per hectare or more, he said.

However, Australia was not the only concern, with annual fires in Indonesia also releasing vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Large fires in 1997 released up to 6 billion tons of CO2, blanketing Southeast Asia in a thick haze and causing a surge in worldwide CO2 levels.

A team of international scientists studying the forest and peat fires found the fires released the equivalent of nearly 40 percent of the world’s annual emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.

Adams called the research a wake-up call.

“When you see the step-increases (of CO2) that they observed, we have to sit up and take notice, that fires are a major problem,” he said

Historically, native forest carbon had been in near equilibrium over millions of years with fires, with only a tiny accretion of carbon over extensive periods of time, he said.

“But then if you add rapid climate change and much greater fire frequency, the equilibrium carbon content of the native forests, instead of going up, is going to go down.”

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