Unexpectedly Intriguing!
August 11, 2016

Every year, there are thousands of wildfires all over the world that add to the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere. While the amount of carbon dioxide that enters the air this way is much pales in comparison to that emitted by controlled human activities, wildfires never-the-less are a significant contributor to atmospheric CO2 levels.

That's one reason why we found the following world map from Global Fire Data fascinating, because it indicates the geographic origins of the fires that put the most carbon dioxide into the air in the years from 1997 through 2014.

Global Fire Data: Carbon emissions from fires - Source: http://www.globalfiredata.org/_plots/map_emissions.png

The most surprising thing we learned from the chart is that the largest area where wildfires have burned to put the greatest amount of CO2 in the air is in central southern Africa. We had previously thought that Brazil's interior might be the largest region, but central southern Africa is clearly the largest area, followed next by central Africa.

The reddest regions on the chart were no surprise however, with Indonesia representing the region of the world whose fires have pumped the most carbon dioxide into the air with respect to the size of the relative amount of area burned, thanks largely to the burning of the large concentration of carbon-rich peat in its forests.

Speaking of Indonesia's wildfires, we're finally seeing the amount of CO2 entering into the Earth's atmosphere begin to fall, as measured at the remote Mauna Loa Observatory.

Year-Over-Year Change in Parts per Million of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, January 1960-July 2016

While Canada's Fort McMurray fire added to the increase in carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere in recent months, it contributed far less than Indonesia's wildfires. As of July 2016, the year over year change in the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has finally returned to levels where it previously peaked during the last decade.

But now we have a couple of questions. What was the timing of the African wildfires in the years from 1997 through 2014 and to what extent might they have contributed to the spikes we see in our chart? Being able to answer this question would make the measurement of atmospheric CO2 levels a better indicator of the Earth's economic activity, where we could better isolate the portion attributable to human activities.

And for those who would just rather watch the world burn, we would suggest this option for doing it in style!

Data Sources

National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Earth System Research Laboratory. Mauna Loa Observatory CO2 Data. [File Transfer Protocol Text File]. Updated 5 August 2016. Accessed 5 August 2016.

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