Friday, April 24, 2009

Wildfires are Another Source of Greenhouse Gases

            As summer approaches, most of us are thinking about relaxing and going to the pool. But, there is something else that comes with the summer months: wildfires. Wildfires are a cause of climate change that doesn’t get much notice. They are speeding up global warming because greenhouse gases, as well as other pollutants, are released when vegetation and trees burn. We can only expect forest fires to grow as an environmental problem; forest fires pollute, causing global warming. In turn, global warming dries out the climate causing more forest fires.

Forest fires emit a great deal of carbon dioxide. A study by researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and at the University of California estimated that fires in the U.S. release about 290 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, which is about 4-6 percent of the total amount of carbon dioxide that the nation releases through fossil fuel burning (Live Science). There are also other pollutants that are produced by wild fires such as black carbon soot and mercury. Black carbon soot absorbs the sun’s radiant energy and heats the ground, adding to global warming (San Francisco Chronicle). Mercury from forest fires in the U.S. contributes 30% as much as the nation’s mercury as the nation’s industrial resources, according to scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (SOP). Mercury is very toxic, so there are concerns about it infiltrating the water system and harming the ecosystem (SOP).

Jennifer Balch of UC Santa Barbara pointed out that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has limited the role of wildfires in its assessments of climate change in the past (San Francisco Chronicle). But now the effects of forest fires are starting to get more attention and scientists are recommending that forest fires be taken into account in global warming calculations (San Francisco Chronicle).

            Researchers at Texas Tech and the University of California, Berkeley, have predicted that wildfire patterns across the globe will gradually shift due to climate change (Lubbock). They predict that wild fires will start occurring in states other than California, Texas, and Oklahoma, and other areas such as Nevada, Idaho, Montana, and the western Great Lakes region will become more susceptible to wildfire outbreaks from 2010 to 2039 (Lubbock Avalanche Journal). They also predict that the frequency of wildfire outbreaks in Texas will decrease or change little within this time frame, but will increase after, especially in the Texas Panhandle.

It is important to realize that forest fires are not secluded to the U.S. Thousands of acres are deliberately burned in tropical areas each year to make room for farms. This accounts for about 1/5 of all the human-caused greenhouse gas emissions every year! (San Francisco Chronicle)

It’s good to know that researchers and scientists are starting to become more serious about accounting for greenhouse gas and pollutant emissions due to forest fires. Unfortunately deforestation and wildfires will be hard to control and prevent. Many of the countries practicing deforestation have unstable governments and according to Misty Wilburn of the Texas Forest Service, about 90% of the fires in Texas are caused by humans (Lubbock Avalanche Journal). Without limiting ourselves to nature, how can we control ourselves?


1 comment:

Travis said...

Wildfires are a very big concern in many cities, especially in California where the climate and terrain make fires very dangerous. The carbon emissions from the fires though are typically not the first thing that the general public is concerned about. They are more concerned about their house burning down, and the danger to their families (understandably).

Historically the way to safe guard the people's homes and families is to stop fires as they occur. However, recently that has been seen to exacerbate the problem. Natural fires clear the underbrush of dead trees, fallen branches, and leaves. When the fires are stopped though, the underbrush builds up. This has been called "fuel loadings", which increases the severity of fires, and the number of acres affected. The solution to fuel loading is "prescribed burning" where portions of the forest are burned under controlled circumstances.

If we need to burn underbrush anway to safeguard the communities we live in, then would it not be more beneficial to collect the fuel loading and convert it to electricity in a biomass burning facility. I believe the collection of the biomass from the forest is most likely going to be very labor intensive, but we need to create jobs anyway. Second, an experiment for the environmental impacts of removing the underbrush should be conducted before large scale adoption. It is at least something to concern.