(CNN)Wildfires in the vast and pristine forests of Canada, Europe and the far Northern US could release an enormous amount of planet-warming emissions between now and 2050, putting the world's climate goals in peril, scientists reported Wednesday.
Some experts fear these forests could shift from absorbing carbon dioxide to emitting it
A study published in the journal Science Advances found that wildfires in the North American boreal forests — already increasing due to global warming — could spew nearly 12 gigatons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere over the next three decades. That's equivalent to the annual emissions of 2.6 billion fossil fuel-powered cars.
Carly Phillips, lead author of the study and a fellow with the Union of Concerned Scientists' Western States Climate Team, said it's a "cascade of consequences" brought on by the climate crisis.
"The biggest takeaway is that these fires in boreal areas are releasing huge quantities of carbon to the atmosphere, and as a result are really jeopardizing our ability to meet certain climate targets." Phillips told CNN. "A lot is at stake."
"It almost goes without saying that there are real effects for people on the ground who are living through these wildfires," she added. "There are transportation impacts, tourism impacts, economic impacts and so on from these fires that can be really devastating on local communities."
The boreal forest, also known as the "taiga," is the world's largest and most intact biome, forming a sprawling, dense ring of woodlands situated below the Arctic circle and spanning vast tracts of the Northern Hemisphere in North America, Europe and Russia. This ecosystem — with trees like spruce, pine, and fir — make up about one-third of all forests on the planet.
In the past, researchers have called the boreal forests "the carbon the world forgot," because it stores roughly 30 to 40% of all land-based carbon in the world, mostly tucked in the soil. The northern hemisphere's cold temperatures prevent dead biomass from breaking down, storing carbon for thousands of years deep in the permafrost.
But as climate change and industrial activities advanced deeper into the vital ecosystem, degrading the land and spewing more planet-warming gases that fuel devastating wildfires, many climate researchers fear that the boreal could reach a tipping point, beyond which they shift from absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to emitting it.