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 UC Santa Barbara and funded by the National Science Foundation.
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 first author David Bowman, professor at the University of Tasmania. "Our review is both timely and of great relevance globally."
They note, however, that satellites cannot adequately capture fire activity in ecosystems with very long fire intervals, or those with highly variable fire activity.
Co-lead author Jennifer Balch, 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 says, noting that in the humid tropics 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."
She explains the importance of the article: "This synthesis is a prerequisite for adaptation to the apparent recent intensification of fire feedbacks, which have been exacerbated by climate change, rapid land cover transformation, and exotic species introductions –– that collectively challenge the integrity of entire biomes."
The authors acknowledge that their estimate of fire's influence on climate is just a start, and they highlight major research gaps that must be addressed in order to understand the complete contribution of fire to the climate system.
Balch notes that a holistic fire science is necessary, and points out fire's true importance. "We don't think about fires correctly," she said. "Fire is as elemental as air or water. We live on a fire planet. We are a fire species. Yet, the study of fire has been very fragmented. We know lots about the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, but we know very little about the fire cycle, or how fire cycles through the biosphere."
Gail Gallessich | EurekAlert!
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