California wildfires release carbon dioxide into atmosphere

As of October 2020, California has lost 4.2 million acres of land — 150 million trees, 8,200 buildings and 31 lives — since the discovery of a wildfire in late August, causing the evacuation of thousands of citizens, according to the LA Times.

Cal Fire, a website run by California firefighters and volunteers, states that over 17,000 firefighters are working around the clock to combat the flames, but even with such great numbers, the outcome does not seem promising. As the fires rapidly approach Northern California, evacuation measures have already been put in place.

Amid the destruction and chaos, one topic continues to be the primary worry of environmentalists and scientists alike — carbon emissions.

According to the Global Fire Emission Database, as of September, the California wildfires have emitted 91 metric tons of (carbon dioxide), 25% more than the annual fossil fuel emissions from the state.

Nancy Harris, a research manager at Global Forest Watch expressed that this is a major cause for concern, especially as the world is trying to battle the effects of climate change.

“What’s particularly concerning about the California fire (carbon dioxide) emissions is that it contributes to a multipart climate feedback system that will exacerbate the effects of climate change,” Harris said in an interview with Mongaby.

Harris explained that the more carbon dioxide concentration there is in the atmosphere, the warmer it becomes, causing plants to dry up. This dry climate, coupled with the high temperatures of west coast states — like California — leads to more fires.

Contrary to popular belief, carbon dioxide is necessary for our survival. Aside from being used by plants to make sugars and oxygen, carbon dioxide is also what keeps our planet from becoming a giant ball of ice, as represented in the 2013 movie, “Snowpiercer.”

Carbon dioxide warms our planet by absorbing infrared radiation  and re-emitting it, a feature not shared by other important gases that make up our atmosphere.

“Carbon dioxide is a linear model,” Timothy Chapp, associate professor of chemistry, said. “When it is hit by IR radiation it causes it to vibrate and that frequency associated with it causes the build-up of kinetic energy.”

Since carbon dioxide is a gas molecule, it is constantly bumping into other carbon dioxide molecules. This will cause the molecule that has the buildup of kinetic energy to re-emit said energy to the other molecules it bumped into. The faster the gas molecule moves, the more collisions between said molecules occur, the more energy is transferred and the higher the temperature goes up. The rise in temperature associated with the interaction gives in the moniker greenhouse gas, according to Chapp.

“The easiest way to imagine it is that sunlight hits blacktops and creates heat, that heat is infrared radiation,” Chapp said. “That IR radiation is then redirected back out to space, but greenhouses gases absorb that radiation in their bonds which causes warming.”

Just how a greenhouse for plants works, as explained by NASA, the clear glass allows the passing of IR radiation, but it does not allow it to escape by re-emitting the energy towards the walls where it will be bounced back to the glass and then to the walls again in a continuous loop. This causes the air inside the greenhouse to drastically rise in temperature, similar to how our atmosphere works.

Carbon dioxide itself is not the cause of global warming, it is the rise in the concentration of carbon dioxide. Chapp provided multiple ways to lower the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere

“From my perspective, this problem can be solved through either a biological or chemical viewpoint,” Chapp said. “From a biological standpoint, we can use the growth of biomass as a way to convert the (carbon dioxide)in the air into something that is not a gas.”

Chapp explained that through the use of plants,  carbon dioxide numbers can be lowered, as plants convert carbon dioxide into glucose, a non-volatile sugar.

“If you ferment the biomass, you can convert it to some fuel like ethanol, which is carbon neutral,” Chapp said.

Another method Dr. Chapp proposed is still in the research phase.

“Today, chemists are looking into ways to convert carbon dioxide into something that is chemically usable,” Chapp said. “This is known as a C1 feedstock. If we can find a way to turn carbon dioxide into methane, you would be able to have C1 feedstock that is carbon neutral and still be able to make all the plastics that are usually made using oil and natural gases.”

The idea of direct air capture has also been making its way around the table of the federal government.

Today, chemists are looking into ways to convert carbon dioxide into something that is chemically usable.

— Timothy Chapp

This new method utilizes special scrubbers full of nitrogenous bases or hydrogen solutions to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The carbon dioxide is then stored in underground containers as scientists figure how to convert it into something usable and chemically viable.

As the fires in California continue to burn, scientists and other organizations are not only trying to extinguish the flames, but are also trying to extinguish the effects of climate change.