The United States may be the second largest carbon emitter on the planet, but it's got a new rival: forest fires. Indonesia is in the midst of a devastating fire season, one that's kicking up more greenhouse gases than the entire US economy.
There have been nearly 100,000 forest fires in Indonesia this year, according to the World Resources Institute. The habitat loss from these blazes is tremendous, but for climate scientists, there's an even bigger concern. Many of the fires — 52% — are occurring in tropical peatlands, ecosystems that store some of the largest amounts of carbon on the planet. Peatland fires are like a pollution bomb, smouldering through centuries-old soil carbon and releasing vast plumes of CO2 and methane into the atmosphere.
Image Credit: World Resources Institute
To put the climate-warming potential of these blazes in perspective, the World Resources Institute decided to compare them with emissions from some of the world's biggest carbon polluters. The graph below depicts average daily carbon emissions from the totality of US economic activities (in blue), compared with Indonesian forest fires (in yellow). We can see that beginning in September 2015, daily emissions from Indonesia's fires surpassed our own.
The fires will die out eventually. But according to a recent scientific paper, fire seasons are likely to become longer and more intense in the future. If the 2015 fire season indicates a new pattern, then we could be in real trouble. Because if you thought getting human beings to reduce their carbon emissions was tough, try asking thousands of remote, tropical islands to do the same.
Top: Smoke over the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory