Thursday, April 23, 2009

The neglected role of fire in climate change

National Science Foundation: Fire must be accounted for as an integral part of climate change, according to 22 authors of an article published in the April 24 issue of the journal Science. The authors determined that intentional deforestation fires alone contribute up to one-fifth of the human-caused increase in emissions of carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas that increases global temperature.

The work is the culmination of a meeting supported by the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics (KITP) and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), both based at the University of California, Santa Barbara and funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The authors call on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to fully integrate fire into their assessments of global climate change, and consider fire-climate feedbacks, which have been largely absent in global models. The article ties together various threads of knowledge about fire, which have, until now, remained isolated in disparate fields including ecology, global modeling, physics, anthropology and climatology.

Increasing numbers of wildfires are influencing climate as well, the authors report. "The tragic fires in Victoria, Australia, emphasize the ubiquity of recent large wildfires and potentially changing fire regimes that are concomitant with anthropogenic climate change," said David Bowman of the University of Tasmania. "Our review is both timely and of great relevance globally."

…Jennifer Balch, a member of the research team and a postdoctoral fellow at NCEAS, explains that there are bigger and more frequent fires from the western U.S. to the tropics. There are "fires where we don't normally see fires," she said, noting that it is in the humid tropics that a lot of deforestation fires are occurring, usually to expand agriculture or cattle ranching. "Wet rainforests have not historically experienced fires at the frequency that they are today. During extreme droughts, such as in 97-98, Amazon wildfires burned through 39,000 square kilometers of forest."…

A 2005 fire in Topanga (Los Angeles), shot by Nerval, Wikimedia Commons

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