Sunday, November 29, 2009

Burning rainforests release huge amounts of greenhouse gases

Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (Germany): Peatlands, especially those in tropical regions, sequester gigantic amounts of organic carbon. Human activities are now having a considerable impact on these wetlands. For example, drainage projects, in combination with the effects of periodic droughts, can lead to large-scale fires, which release enormous amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, and thus contribute to global warming.

Using laser-based measurements, Professor Florian Siegert and his research group at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) in Munich have now estimated the volume of peat burned in such fires with unprecedented accuracy. The new data imply that, in 2006, peatland fires in Indonesia released up to about 900 million metric tons of CO2. This is more than the total amount of CO2 emitted in Germany in that year, and represents about 16 % of the emissions associated with deforestation worldwide. “Our work once again underlines the decisive role played by acutely endangered tropical wetland ecosystems in the context of global warming”, says Siegert. “

…. “It is estimated that, in the tropics, peat swamps cover an area of 30 to 45 million hectares”, says Professor Florian Siegert from the GeoBio-Center of the LMU Munich. “This corresponds to about 10% of the total area of peatlands in the world, and means that tropical peatlands represent one of the largest near-surface storage sites for organic carbon that we have”. – And almost half of this reservoir is located in a single country, Indonesia.

… Left in their natural state, they are simply too wet to burn. But drainage measures and deforestation disturb their ecological equilibrium and make them vulnerable to fire, which is almost always caused by human activities. Private companies often exploit fires to prepare the ground for the establishment of large-scale plantations for the production of wood pulp and palm oil,.

The fires, however, are doubly dangerous. The smoke they produce contains tremendous amounts of aerosols and toxic gases, which can lead to serious health problems in many areas of Southeast Asia. Furthermore, the soil-bound organic carbon is transformed into carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas which plays a leading role in global warming. …

…Most studies on changes in land use and their effects on climate change have considered only total forest biomass. The new data demonstrate that, in future, one must also focus on the biomass that is stored in the soil…..

Thick smoke hung over the island of Borneo when the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite passed overhead on October 5, 2006.

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