Nature offers us some of the most sophisticated technology there is. While scientists and engineers continue to scratch their heads trying to figure out how to develop ways to effectively capture our carbon, trees already cracked the code. They’ve been absorbing carbon forever, man. So have other kinds of flora. Grasslands, wetlands, and even underwater kelp forests pull carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in, well, themselves.
Unfortunately for us, we’re on track to lose one of the world’s largest carbon storage sources. A study published in Science Advances last week found that even if we reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the Brazilian Amazon may lose up to 16 percent of its forest by 2050 to fires that result from the ever-drying conditions in the Amazon. As a result, 17 billion more metric tons of carbon may enter into the air.
The scientists behind this study came to the conclusion after running a model that recreates burning scenarios and how increased temperature from climate change will influence fire behavior in the Amazon. This model also takes into account the microclimates within a forest and the terrain. With all this data, scientists are able to simulate how much forest can burn under certain weather conditions and, then, estimate the amount of greenhouse gases that would emit.
Losing the Amazon’s ability to sequester carbon would be a shock to the climate, but the thing is we’re already doing a number on it and forests around the world. I mean, just take a look around. Someplace is on fire seemingly all the time. And we’re reaching a point where these very solutions to the climate crisis—natural carbon sinks, that is—are beginning to contribute to the problem itself.
Look at Australia. In December, NASA found that the bush fires raging across the landscape pumped some 250 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere. That’s equivalent to half of Australia’s annual emissions. And the fires have continued to burn since. Though rains have brought the country some respite, emissions have surely gone up.
There’s no doubt that Earth’s rising temperatures are contributing to the emergency. These bushfires foreshadow what’s to come as Australia continues heat up and dry out.
A similar story played out in California in 2018, the state’s worst wildfire season on record. That year, wildfires emitted as much carbon as the state’s entire power sector make it real tough for the state to meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets.
When forests emit carbon, it creates a feedback loop worsen climate change and making large fires more likely. Abigail Swann, an associate professor of biology at the University of Washington’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences, explained in an email to Earther that there are other feedback loops as well that can further affect forests and their ability to sequester carbon. Fires, for example, can also reduce forest coverage, which can affect global climate patterns if more or less water from tropical trees enter the atmosphere. In places such as the Amazon, rainfall levels can drop if fewer trees stand, and that further reduces the forest’s ability to hold carbon.
These feedback loops complicate the climate crisis because they can make the situation a whole lot worse if we don’t stop them before ecosystems reach a tipping point. The best way to do that is by reducing the world’s consumption of fossil fuels.
“We are reaching the point where if we don’t stop the increase of CO2 into the atmosphere, the planet is going to warm up at the level that it becomes really dangerous,” Alessandro Baccini, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center who’s done research on tropical forests, told Earther.
Pawlok Dass, a postdoctoral researcher at Northern Arizona University, sees a pretty bleak future ahead. Above-ground carbon sinks like forests are becoming more vulnerable as fires become more regular, he told Earther.
“Things don’t look very good,” Dass said.
In California at least, some scientists are looking to grasslands as an alternative carbon sink in the future. Forests will remain an effective carbon sink if global temperature rise caps at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) in Southern California’s drier climate. That’s a best-case scenario that doesn’t really seem too likely these days unfortunately. Dass’ research has found California’s grasslands are able to store more carbon than the forests, though. That’s because they store carbon underground in the soil that fires generally won’t be able to release back into the atmosphere, making grasslands a somewhat more viable carbon sequestration source as the world warms that we should consider making a greater effort to conserve. Other research is also looking at underwater kelp forests to pull carbon out of the atmosphere. The same goes for wetlands.
We’ll need all of these ecosystems in good shape to sufficiently address the crisis. I repeat: All. Of. Them.
But we can’t just rest the future of the planet on nature’s shoulders. No, we have to get our shit together, too. And both Dass and Baccini were clear there’s only one way how: Bring down the world’s carbon emissions by burning fewer fossil fuels.