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Warming to Ignite the Carbon Bomb

Posted on 4 March 2012 by Stephen Leahy

NOTE: This is a reprint of an article by Stephen Leahy originally appearing in IPS News 

VANCOUVER, Canada, Feb 27 2012 (IPS) - Rising temperatures are drying out northern forests and peatlands, producing bigger and more intense fires. And this will only get much worse as the planet heats up from the use of ever larger amounts of fossil fuels, scientists warned last week at the end of a major science meeting in Vancouver.

“In a warmer world, there will be more fire. That’s a virtual certainty,” said Mike Flannigan, a forest researcher at the University of Alberta, Canada.

“I’d say a doubling or even tripling of fire events is a conservative estimate,” Flannigan told IPS.

Click to enlarge

Worldwide, fires burn an estimated 350 to 450 million ha of forest and grasslands every year - an area larger than India. Credit: Carl Osbourn/CC BY 2.0

While Flannigan’s research reveals forest fire risk may triple in future, a similar increase in peat fires will be far more dangerous. There are millions of square kilometres of tundra and peatlands in the northern hemisphere and they hold more than enough carbon to ramp up global temperatures high enough to render most of the planet uninhabitable if they burn.

A forest fire in Indonesia that ignited peatlands in 1997 smouldered for months, releasing the equivalent of 20 to 40 percent of the worldwide fossil fuel emissions for the entire year, he said.

“There is the potential for significant releases of carbon and other greenhouse gases (from future peat fires),” Flannigan said.

If peat fires release large amounts of carbon, then temperatures will rise faster and higher, leading to further drying of forests and peat, and increasing the likelihood of fires in what is called a positive feedback, he said.

When the increased fire from global warming was first detected in 2006, Johann Goldammer of the Global Fire Monitoring Center at Germany’s Freiburg University called the northern forest a “carbon bomb”.

“It’s sitting there waiting to be ignited, and there is already ignition going on,” Goldammer said according to media reports in 2006.

Flannigan’s research is based on climate projections for 2070 to 2090. Forests will be drier and there will be more lightning with rising temperatures. Around the world, most fires are caused by humans, except in remote regions like boreal forest and treeless tundra, he said.

Lightning sparked the 1,000-square-kilometre tundra fire fuelled by peat in Alaska’s Anaktuvuk River region in 2007. Lightning, once nearly unknown in the far north, is becoming more common as the region is now two to three degrees C warmer. Until the past decade, fire had largely been absent from the tundra over the past 12,000 years.

The Anaktuvuk River peat fire burned for nearly three months, releasing about two million tonnes of CO2 before it was extinguished by snow. That’s about half of the annual emissions of a country like Nepal or Uganda. Surprisingly, the severely burned tundra continued to release CO2 in the following years.

Peat can grow several metres deep beneath the ground. In fact, some peat fires burn right through winter, beneath the snow, then pick up again in the spring, said Flannigan.

About half the world’s soil carbon is locked in northern permafrost and peatland soils, said Merritt Turetsky, an ecologist at Canada’s University of Guelph. This carbon has been accumulating for thousands of years, but fires can release much of this into the atmosphere rapidly, Turetsky said in a release.

Over the past 10 years, fires are burning far more boreal forest than ever before. Longer snow-free seasons, melting permafrost and rising temperatures are large-scale changes underway in the north, Turetsky and colleagues have found.

Other researchers have shown that the average size of forest fires in the boreal zone of western Canada has tripled since the 1980s. Much of Canada’s vast forest region is approaching a tipping point, warned researchers at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Germany’s largest research organisation.

This “drastic change” in normal fire pattern has occurred with a only a small increase in temperatures relative to future temperatures, the German researchers concluded in a study published in the December 2011 issue of The American Naturalist.

Worldwide, fires burn an estimated 350 to 450 million ha of forest and grasslands every year. That’s an area larger than the size of India.

The first-ever assessment of forest and bush fires’ impact on human health estimated that 339,000 people die per year from respiratory and other fire-related illness.

“I was surprised the number was this high,” said Fay Johnston, co-author and researcher at University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia.

Half of the deaths were in Africa and 100,000 in Southeast Asia. Deforestation fires in the tropics are the worst when it comes to human health impacts, she said. Heavy smoke contains high volumes of tiny particles that are very damaging to the lungs and cardiovascular system and can produce heart attacks.

“It takes humans to burn a rainforest. This would be the easiest to stop compared to other fires,” Johnston told IPS.

Forest and bush fires result in many billions of dollars in material losses every year. Last year, fires in drought-stricken Texas resulted in at least five billion dollars in losses, while the Slave Lake, Alberta fire was Canada’s second worst disaster at 750 million dollars.

Future fires will be bigger and more intense and largely beyond our abilities to control or suppress, said Flannigan.

“Virtually all of Russia, Canada, the U.S.” will be impacted, he said.

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Comments 1 to 10:

  1. I think this increase in forest fires represents some of Earth system feedbacks that Hansen has recently commented on that must be accounted for in determination of any final equalibrium response to the rapid increases in greenhouse gases we've seen. In addition to the drying of the forests, there is the issue of the warmer winters which allows insects, like the pine beetle to survive, and destroy more trees, which also ultimately increases carbon in the atmosphere, and thus these biological responses also figure into any final equalibrium response. Given that the we are seeing more fires and more insect infestations already from 394 ppm of CO2, we' ve not yet obviously even seen what the equalibrium response is to our current levels of greenhouse gases, and given that they continue to rapidly build, we'll never know what it would have been.
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  2. Positive feedbacks arent just limited to natural forces, climate change will cause changes in the patterns of humanity that will also cause positive feedbacks. Migration to escape problem areas will increase travel to stay in touch with homeland areas, itself increasing emissions. Relocation of of cities requires energy, air conditioning requires energy encouraging more fossill fuel use. The list could be endless.
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  3. Good point nigelj. One could of course extrapolate that backward to the beginning of the Holocene itself, and suggest that civilization's rise was part of a positive feedback response to the warmer temperatures which allowed for the rise of agriculture which was necessary for civilization. Thus, during this particular interglacial period, one particular species of animal was ripe to take advantage of the warmer temperatures and thus developed the means to further warm the planet by the release of massive amounts of greenhouse gases. So to that extent, civilization is an ongoing positive feedback response to the initial Milankovitch cycle that shifted to begin warming the ocean, melting the ice sheets, outgassing CO2, etc. The difference between this interglacial and others of the past few million years is clearly civilization as a positive feedback response to warmer interglacial temperatures-- hence why giving it the term Anthopocene is quite appropriate and should be marked as officially beginning when human civilization began altering atmospheric chemistry in a measurable way beyond individual human respiration.
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  4. Followup on R.Gates comment - the current interglacial was already an anomaly - it didn't peak and decline like the last three interglacial periods. The 'lucky' event seems to be the Younger Dryas (the Lake Agassiz puzzle). Somehow (or consequently), the spike was intercepted by a cold period ... and temperatures steadied up until the Industrial Revolution. As R. Gates suggested - we've now artificially provided the spike-driver to re-instate the natural high and probable subsequent decline (and a gigaload of GHGs to boot). The implication that this may take our current standard of living with it ... is just minor collateral damage in the scheme of things. "Civilization is Man's way of showing Nature who's boss." - quip from my webpages 15 years ago.
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  5. Owl905, Of course scientists like William Ruddiman would argue that human land use changes beginning with the clearing of forests some 8,000 years ago and agriculture 5,000 years ago already began altering atmospheric chemistry enough to change the temperture profile of this interglacial. Thus, from Ruddiman's perspective the Anthropocene began many thousands of years ago and we created our own conditions for more stable subsequent temperatures. In previous interglacials, human ancestors were not developed nor widespread enough to have altered atmospheric chemistry to the same degree as they did starting with the early Holocene. This alteration of atmospheric chemistry has of course only accelerated as civilization has advanced, and now of course the issue becomes one of excess, as human greenhouse gas emissions can be thought of as a " human volcano" in term of the rate at which they are flowing into the atmosphere, vastly overwhelming any natural mechanisms that might remove them.
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  6. As holes are melted here and there through permafrost, surface water from the boggy northern areas drains through the holes, drying out the bogs. The peat exposed becomes very vulnerable to burning.
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  7. Regardless of whether the global warming that is currently in play is due to human beings and is thus AGW or not due to human beings and is thus just plain old GW, can there be any argument that we as a species absolutely must do whatever we can to reduce our contribution to the greenhouse effect? Anyone who thinks that there is an argument for not taking action needs to re-read the above post and if they still feel the same, they need to find out what is meant by the term ‘tipping point’. We know what the greenhouse gases are and how much of them we are releasing into the atmosphere. We also know how to minimize that release. Surely it is a crime against humanity to deliberately hinder any action towards their reduction. (Cue some smartarse to say that I am calling for a cull in the population of human beings, seeing as we emit greenhouse gases. Some more than others in my experience.) Future generations are going to look back at what we knew as a species and wonder why on earth we did not take the action the scientists are screaming for. Mind you, five minutes spent looking at archive material of the WUWT website and they will get some idea as to where the problem lies. It is not all WUWT’s fault, of course; in the U.K. we have Lord Monckton, the well known >snipping< >snip<, Lord “We can adapt to global warming” Lawson, columnists such as Peter “The greenhouse effect probably doesn't exist” Hitchins and Melanie “Climatology is a global fraud” Philips, among many others who seem to speak from positions of appalling ignorance, yet deliberately try to stop action that is intended to combat global warming and thus their children’s suffering and that of their grandchildren. The comments policy prohibits my giving an opinion of such people. As for America’s contribution to the issue, well ...!
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  8. Question to the knowledgeable here: Is there any negative feedback from extensive fires? Does the smoke and soot act as positive or negative?
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  9. DMarshall, smoke and soot in the air block incoming sunlight and cause cooling, while dark soot on the ground absorbs more sunlight and causes warming. That being said, smoke and soot are transient effects. Ten years after the event their impact is effectively non-existent. Thus, in the immediate aftermath of a fire smoke and soot are a net cooling forcing, then as the soot settles to Earth it is a net warming forcing for a few years, until the soot is washed away and it becomes a net zero forcing. In the long run smoke and soot don't matter. On the other hand, the carbon released into the atmosphere by the burning may stay there contributing to warming for centuries.
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  10. Fires may be transients, but they do provide an interesting opportunity to trace the atmospheric flow of gases from known surface sources. McMillan et al 2005 did so with satellite tracking of carbon monoxide from South American fires: The presented AIRS daily global CO maps from 22 – 29 September 2002 show large-scale, long-range transport of CO from anthropogenic and natural sources, most notably from biomass burning. The sequence of daily maps reveal CO advection from Brazil to the South Atlantic in qualitative agreement with previous observations. Forward trajectory analysis confirms this scenario and indicates much longer range transport into the southern Indian Ocean. Fisher et al 2010 tracked carbon monoxide to the Arctic. As if it wasn't complicated enough, ENSO gets in on the act: AIRS shows lower than average CO columns over Alaska during April 2008, despite the Russian fires, due to a weakened Aleutian Low hindering transport from Asia and associated with the moderate 2007–2008 La Ni˜na. This suggests that Asian pollution influence over the Arctic may be particularly large under strong El Ni˜no conditions. Based on these kinds of studies, it is astounding that anyone can still pretend anthropogenic sources are insignificant.
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