Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Under a warming climate, Washington’s forests will lose stored carbon as area burned by wildfire increases

US Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station: Forests in the Pacific Northwest store more carbon than any other region in the United States, but our warming climate may undermine their storage potential.

A new study conducted by the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station and the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington has found that, by 2040, parts of Washington State could lose as much as a third of their carbon stores, as an increasing area of the state’s forests is projected to be burned by wildfire. The study—published in the July 2012 issue of the journal Ecological Applications—is the first to use statistical models and publicly available Forest Inventory and Analysis data to estimate the effects of a warming climate on carbon storage and fluxes on Washington’s forests.

“When considering the use of forests to store carbon, it will be critical to consider the increasing risk of wildfire,” said Crystal Raymond, a research biologist based at the station’s Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Laboratory and lead author of the study. “Especially in the West, where climate-induced changes in fire are expected to be a key agent of change.”

...To explore what effect climate-driven changes in wildfire might have on the ability of Washington’s forests to act as carbon sinks, Raymond and station research ecologist Don McKenzie used a novel approach. They combined published forest-inventory data, fire-history data, and statistical models of area burned to estimate historical and future carbon carrying capacity of three regions in Washington—the Western Cascades, the Eastern Cascades, and the Okanogan Highlands—based on potential forest productivity and projections of 21st century area burned.

“Forests on both the eastern and western slopes of the Cascade Range will lose carbon stored in live biomass because area burned across the state is expected to increase,” Raymond said. “Even small increases in area burned can have large consequences for carbon stored in living and dead biomass.”... 
A new PNW Research Station study explored how carbon dynamics in Washington State may be altered by more-frequent wildfires, triggered by a warming climate. The study looked at the effects of greater area burned on both live biomass and nonliving biomass, such as the dead standing trees and downed wood shown here. Photo by Tom Iraci, from the US Forest Service/PNW Research Station website

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