Wildfires are becoming an increasingly significant global issue, causing severe damage and releasing an alarming amount of carbon into the atmosphere. Forest fires are emitting more greenhouse gases and particulate matter into the atmosphere than previously assumed in climate targets. Recent research reveals that the 2020 bushfires in Australia, combined with drought conditions, released nearly twofold more carbon than what is usually emitted by fossil fuel emissions in an entire year. Even more alarming, in 2021 alone, wildfires released more than double Germany’s yearly CO2 output! As the effects of climate change continue to unfold, the risk of wildfires and their impact on greenhouse gas emissions will continue to increase. This makes early detection of wildfires crucial in mitigating their impact. Innovative solutions such as exci’s AI-powered wildfire detection system can significantly improve the speed and accuracy of wildfire detection. In this blog post, we will delve deeper into the impact of wildfires on greenhouse gas emissions and how exci’s early bushfire detection system can significantly mitigate their effects.
The Impact of Australian bushfires on the Carbon Cycle
When vegetation burns, it releases carbon dioxide that was stored within, which is the main reason large-scale forest fires release atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) and contribute to climate change. Researchers from the University of Wollongong and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in the US, investigated the long-term effects of the drought and bushfires on Australia’s carbon cycle. Their scientific estimates show that the devastating Black Summer bushfires in Australia released almost twice as much carbon as Australia’s annual fossil fuel emissions. The 2019 fires in New South Wales and Victoria, in particular, have emitted approximately 400 million tons of carbon dioxide, pushing the country-level estimates for all of 2019 to about 900 million tons of carbon dioxide. Smoke plumes from the fires have traveled globally, affecting New Zealand, South America, and possibly even Antarctica. Unlike previous fire seasons, this year’s fires have destroyed vast forest ecosystems that take in carbon and store it in biomass, releasing it into the atmosphere during the fires. During the long-term drought that preceded the bushfires, photosynthesis decreased, significantly reducing the carbon uptake. The team used three satellites and atmospheric gas measuring instruments to track the carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide emitted by the bushfires and the process of photosynthesis and regrowth in the affected areas. Without a significant increase in bushfires, the researchers estimated that the Australian ecosystem needs about 20 years to recover from bushfires. However, the lead researcher of this paper, Dr. Brendan Byrne, warned that climate change-driven heat and drought events might increase the frequency of bushfires and the time required for ecosystems to recover. It could take decades for the forests to recover and become net absorbers of carbon dioxide once again.
According to Niels Andela, a NASA research scientist working on the Global Fire Emissions Database, two independent studies of greenhouse gas emissions from the 2019-2020 bushfires showed similar results. The data was acquired from instruments carried by different satellites, which detect the heat signatures of wildfires. However, the uncertainty involved in near-real-time estimates could be up to 50% due to historic estimates of fire emissions. In 2019, Australia experienced the hottest and driest year on record, resulting in the shattering of the country’s record for the hottest day in December. With climate extremes increasing globally due to rising temperatures, real-time wildfire emissions estimates are becoming more critical.
Professor Rob Jackson of Stanford University warns that the carbon cycle implications of forest loss in Australia are significant since it will take decades for the forests to become efficient absorbers of greenhouse gases. Even half a billion tons of carbon emissions is significant, as it keeps adding to the atmosphere. The catastrophic fires in national parks have had severe implications for carbon storage and species conservation, causing many to ask if this is a transformation of Australia’s ecosystems.
Feedback loop infographic by Greenpeace
Record-breaking carbon emissions from wildfires in 2021
According to the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), wildfires that occurred in 2021 in some regions of Siberia, the United States, and Turkey released a record amount of carbon emissions. Globally, these fires emitted 1.76 billion tonnes of carbon, which is more than double the amount produced by Germany’s yearly CO2 emissions. Certain areas, including parts of Siberia’s Yakutia region, Turkey, Tunisia, and the western United States, had their highest recorded wildfire emissions between January and November. CAMS’ senior scientist Mark Parrington attributes the increase in flammability and fire risk of vegetation to the hotter and drier regional conditions caused by climate change. Although global wildfire emissions in 2021 were not the highest since 2003, CAMS believes that these emissions will continue to increase as the effects of climate change unfold. In particular, Yakutia in northeastern Siberia had its highest CO2 emissions from wildfires during the summer since 2003. Meanwhile, in western Siberia, there were numerous fires, producing daily CO2 emissions that were significantly above the average between 2003 and 2021. Fires in Canada, California, and the US Pacific Northwest released about 83 million tonnes of CO2, generating large smoke plumes that reached Europe through the Atlantic.
Prolonged La Nina Event worsens Grass Fire Risk
As La Nina fades, Australia is facing a high risk of devastating grass fires in 2023 due to tinder-dry vegetation that has thickened over three years of above-average rainfall, warns the Climate Council. The rapid grass growth, accelerated by widespread rain, will dry out, and high temperatures will further exacerbate the threat to other regions, creating powder keg conditions for future fires. While grass fires typically burn with less intensity they can spread more rapidly than forest fires because of the oxygen surrounding standing grass, with flame fronts recorded at speeds up to 25 km per hour. Also, due to worsening climate change conditions, grass fires can generate intensities up to 30,000 kW/m. A combination of hot and dry conditions with strong winds could see grass fires unfold more destructive and deadly than Australia ever before experienced. Based on history and experience, once fire intensity exceeds 4,000 kW/m it will be very difficult for firefighters to control the fire through direct attack methods. The group’s founder, Greg Mullins, warned that conditions will worsen if the forecast El Nino dry weather system persists during the cooler months and into next summer. There is an increased risk for major grass fires breaking out during hot, dry, and windy weather across several states up to and possibly including April.
History shows, that after a La Nina event, severe grass fires follow. The 2011-12 Australian bushfires following heavy spring rains were one of the biggest fires on record.
Grass-covered land burned in Australia; Source: Response Team at NASA GSFC. Caption by Holli Riebeek. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/52354/vast-area-
The first image above, taken on April 11, 2011, shows thick grass in response to the La Nina event in late 2010 and early 2011 changing to drier weather and providing more fuel for fires. The second image, taken on September 30, 2011, shows the transformation of the landscape as a result of the fires. The burned area extends across Northern Territory, Western Australia, Queensland, and South Australia, covering more than 130,000 square kilometers – an area roughly the size of England. Authorities were monitoring 21 large fires on September 30, and the fire season was expected to continue for several more months.
The analysis report titled “The Powder Keg: Australia Primed to Burn” which has been just released (February 2022) by the Climate Council and the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action (ELCA) calls for an increase in funding for emergency services and long-term disaster recovery efforts to respond to escalating disasters. Mullins stressed that the only solution to prevent future un-fightable fires is worldwide efforts to reduce emissions urgently to address climate change.
AI-Powered Early Wildfire Detection to combat Climate Feedback Loop
Climate change is one of the most important sustainability dilemmas that humanity has ever faced. If we don’t take action fast it will only get worse. As a response to the bushfires of 2019-20, Emergency Leaders for Climate Action (ELCA) submitted several recommendations in their final report of the National Bushfire and Climate Summit (2020) to aid state and territory firefighting efforts. One of them is to invest in innovative solutions such as early wildfire detection technologies.
Early detection of wildfires is crucial in mitigating their impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Traditional methods of wildfire detection, such as aerial surveys or human patrols, can be time-consuming, expensive, and not always effective in detecting fires in remote or inaccessible areas. In 2015, the United Nations Member States adopted a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with the aim to end poverty, guard our planet and guarantee that everyone lives peacefully and prosperously. According to a study published in Nature, Artificial Intelligence could help achieve specific targets of the SDGs; one of them is helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
AI-powered wildfire detection systems, such as exci’s Early Wildfire Detection System, can significantly improve the speed and accuracy of wildfire detection, allowing for faster and more effective response times.
exci employs advanced artificial intelligence models based on deep machine learning algorithms. These models have been trained on more than one billion camera images and 500,000 satellite images each year. This rigorous training has resulted in unparalleled accuracy and speed. While the ground-based camera system enables rapid fire detection within minutes of ignition during daylight hours, satellites (geostationary and low earth orbiting) are better suited for large-scale, remote coverage, night-time detections, and monitoring and tracking of fires.
exci’s technology plays a crucial role in preventing the feedback effect that contributes to climate change. With wildfires contributing significantly to annual global CO2 emissions, early detection, and prevention are crucial to reducing their devastating effects.
In less than two years, exci’s system detected over 15,300 bushfires with an average detection rate of fewer than 3 minutes, significantly reducing the economic, environmental, and social impact on exci’s customers and their communities.
exci is the only AI-powered Early Bushfire Detection System that has been proven in large-scale deployments, monitoring 125 million acres across California with more than 1,000 cameras and over two million hectares of plantations and forestry in Australia.
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by Gabrielle Tylor
exci – The Smoke Alarm for the Bush