Nature — Plants Belched 3 Billion Tons of Carbon into Atmosphere During Monster El Nino of 2014-2016

El Nino. This periodic warming of the Equatorial Pacific has long been known to trigger droughts, wildfires, and higher temperatures throughout the tropics. And, according to a new satellite data based report out of the scientific journal Nature, these very same El Nino feedbacks combined with record global heat to squeeze a massive volume of carbon out of the world’s tropical forests during 2014-2016. From the report:

The monster El Niño weather pattern of 2014–16 caused tropical forests to burp up 3 billion tonnes of carbon, according to a new analysis. That’s equivalent to nearly 20% of the emissions produced during the same period by burning fossil fuels and making cement.

Global Warming + El Nino Sparked Massive Fires, Droughts and Heatwaves in the Tropics During 2014-2016…

The monster El Nino of 2014 to 2016 created serious disruptions to the world’s weather and climate patterns. Emerging during a time when human-forced global warming was rapidly ramping up, this strong natural variability feature generated a severe heat spike in the tropical regions. With the heat near the Equator already at high tide due to human-caused warming, this very strong El Nino produced some of the most severe heatwaves, droughts and wildfires ever experienced during modern times in places like Brazil, Africa, and Southeast Asia.

(Massive Southeast Asia wildfires during a record warm El Nino like these in Borneo during September of 2015 helped to squeeze 3 billion tons of carbon out of tropical forests. A feedback feature related to El Nino and human-caused climate change. Image source: Earth Observatory.)

The Amazon Rainforest, according to a seperate study, experienced record-breaking heat and drought — with the area of drought stretching 20 percent further than during past El Nino years. Temperatures in the Amazon were 1.5 degrees Celsius warmer than during the extreme El Nino event of 1997-1998. Both signals that a climate change + El Nino interaction was amplifying the severity of impacts to this crucial tropical forest system.

In Africa and Southeast Asia, the heat was similarly intense — producing numerous 30-100 year or worse droughts, fires, and record high temperatures. Another signal that this harmful interaction was in full swing.

… This, in Turn, Generated a Major Release of Forest-Stored Carbon …

As the droughts and heatwaves were baking deep, and as the forests were stunting, burning, or exhaling more CO2, high overhead, one of Earth’s climate sentinel satellites — the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2 — was dutifully taking measurements. And what it found was that all this extra tropical heat resulted in a severe loss of soil and vegetative carbon. That the heat and droughts were sparking forest fires, causing stress, and stunting forest growth. That these processes were dumping prodigious volumes of carbon back into the Earth’s atmosphere.

From the study:

Measurements taken by NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) satellite, which measures the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, suggest that El Niño boosted emissions in three ways. A combination of high temperatures and drought increased the number and severity of wildfires in southeast Asia, while drought stunted plant growth in the Amazon rainforest, reducing the amount of carbon it absorbed. And in Africa, a combination of warming temperatures and near-normal rainfall increased the rate at which forests exhaled CO2.

Overall, the Nature study notes that 3 billion tons of carbon were added to the atmosphere as a result of harm done to forests and soils during this particularly hot El Nino period.

… Which Helped to Spike Annual Rates of Atmospheric CO2 Accumulation

(Record rates of atmospheric CO2 accumulation during 2015 and 2016 correspond with large belches of carbon from tropical forests as a result of severe heat. Image source: NOAA ESRL.)

Elsewhere, this added burst of carbon did not go unnoticed. And measurements from NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory indicates that rates of atmospheric carbon accumulation sped up as El Nino and global warming based heat baked the tropical lands. During 2015, rates of atmospheric carbon accumulation accelerated to their fastest pace on record — growing at 3.03 parts per million per year. And in 2016, the second fastest rate of atmospheric CO2 accumulation on record was recorded — 2.98 parts per million per year. This compares to an average 2.2 parts per million annual accumulation that’s primarily driven by fossil fuel burning.

So what we have here is evidence that a heat and El Nino based carbon feedback occurred in the tropics during 2014-2016 and that this feedback resulted in a significant spike in the rate of atmospheric CO2 accumulation even as human based carbon emissions were leveling off (at record high ranges). With El Nino fading, that tropical carbon feedback should abate. But we shouldn’t allow ourselves to breathe too easy. For with Earth now in the range of 1 to 1.25 C warmer than preindustrial times, carbon stored in soil, forests, permafrost and oceans is now being placed under increasing heat related stress. And continuing to burn fossil fuels keeps adding to the heat gain that further increases the risk of a warmth-amplifying release from all of these stores.


Massive El Nino Sent Greenhouse Gas Emissions Soaring

Record Heat and Drought Seen in Amazon During 2015-2016 El Nino

NASA’s Earth Observatory


Hat tip to mlparrish

Hat tip to Spike

Leave a comment


    • The weather has been very rough of late. Thoughts and prayers to all who were impacted there.

    • wpNSAlito

       /  August 14, 2017

      According to Cat6, Sierra Leone has always gotten large amounts of rain in July/August. I’m guessing that this was the result of a terrain tipping point (either geologically or related to the inevitably mismanaged building in the hillside slum areas.

      • If you read on in the source you’re referring to (, there are many statements countering your take on the situation – e.g. that there’s nothing unusual about this event:

        “This summer, the waves moving off Africa and through the Atlantic have been unusually strong, leading to a very active early season across the Main Development Region of the Atlantic. Tropical Storm Bret, which developed east of the Lesser Antilles in June, was among the earliest Cape Verde tropical storms on record. Bret was followed in July by Don, another unusually early Cape Verde tropical storm.”

        “The heaviest downpours in many parts of the globe have become heavier in recent decades, a trend attributed to human-produced climate change and expected to continue. A study led by Christopher Taylor (UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology), published this spring in the journal Nature, finds that the Sahel’s most intense mesoscale convective systems (organized clusters of thunderstorms) have tripled in frequency since 1982.”

        “They argue that Saharan warming is helping to intensify convection within the MCSs through increased wind shear and changes to the Saharan air layer. “The meridional gradient is projected to strengthen throughout the twenty-first century, suggesting that the Sahel will experience particularly marked increases in extreme rain,” the study concludes.”

        Nonetheless, the factors you refer to certainly play their part, which the article also emphasizes.

        • wili

           /  August 15, 2017

          Thanks for that info and context, ring.

        • There do appear to be a number of factors leading to an intensification of the precipitation regime. I’m really glad to see Weather Underground taking attribution by the horns. It’s a heavy lift, but worthwhile.

  1. Ironically, Robert, as I posted your piece to my Facebook feed a few moments ago, I was catching whiffs of the BC fires from my Seattle back porch. Smells tike a giant campfire. The sun will probably be blood red at setting today. When I wrote this story on the El Nino-climate disruption connection for Sierra back in 1998, the feedbacks were in the foreground for me then. Big fires in Amazonia, Mexico and Indonesia that also emitted gigatons. I hope we can catch this mo——–er in time. For our kids’ sake, I hope so.

  2. climatehawk1

     /  August 14, 2017

    Tweet scheduled.

  3. Shawn Redmond

     /  August 14, 2017

    A few more tons being emitted by plants, sort of, you don’t see this in the news. Northern Canada is burning nicely! This view of fires are about 100kms north of Uranium City, Saskatchewan.,MODIS_Terra_CorrectedReflectance_TrueColor,Coastlines,Reference_Labels(hidden),Reference_Features(hidden)&t=2017-08-13&z=3&v=-116.27234937327147,55.853682990200056,-104.13900850645844,63.6778777743817&ab=off&as=2017-07-31&ae=2017-08-13&av=3&al=true

  4. Shawn Redmond

     /  August 14, 2017

    Wrong pic, I’ll try again.,MODIS_Terra_CorrectedReflectance_TrueColor,Coastlines,Reference_Labels(hidden),Reference_Features(hidden)&t=2017-08-13&z=3&v=-3635578.4120143675,-1854029.102389319,-2257417.157905455,-965320.6902112907&ab=off&as=2017-07-31&ae=2017-08-13&av=3&al=true

    • Shawn Redmond

       /  August 14, 2017

      Okay it doesn’t want to play. If you back up to the 13th and look to the western edge you can’t miss them!

  5. Erik Frederiksen

     /  August 14, 2017

    Even Greenland is burning. “NASA’s Aqua satellite collected this natural-color image of a wildfire in the western part of Greenland with the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, MODIS, instrument on August 04, 2017. Actively burning areas, detected by MODIS’s thermal bands, are outlined in red. Even though most of Greenland is covered with ice, the outer parts of the country are not. On the western side of Greenland a wildfire has apparently broken out.”

  6. Spike

     /  August 15, 2017

  7. Appreciate the hat tip, Robert. Please stay well. We need you.

  1. Nature — Plants Belched 3 Billion Tons of Carbon into Atmosphere During Monster El Nino of 2014-2016 | robertscribbler – Enjeux énergies et environnement

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