Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Are Wildland Fires Fueling the Greenhouse?


Wildland fires are taking tons of carbon out of storage and feeding it into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, a primary greenhouse gas. Drought makes things worse, stunting tree growth and turning forests into tinderboxes. And when human activity disturbs the environment, the ability of forests to store carbon is further diminished.

These are some of the preliminary findings from computer modeling studies of the Colorado wildfires of 2002 being presented in San Francisco, December 6–10, at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU). A team of researchers from Colorado State University (Fort Collins), the U.S. Geological Survey (Denver), and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR, Boulder) conducted the research.

"We’re using the western U.S. as a case study area where climate and land use are interacting in several interesting ways," says NCAR senior scientist David Schimel, who’s been collaborating with Dennis Ojima (CSU) and Jason Neff (USGS) on the project. Western lands—especially the evergreen forests—represent roughly half of U.S. carbon storage. Changes in land use, fire suppression strategies, and climate all have potential to increase wildland fires.

The researchers developed a new computer model of a complex forest ecosystem to simulate the release of carbon during the 2002 fire season in Colorado. The findings estimate how much carbon would be stored in a normal year compared to a drought year, such as 2002. More carbon is freed from storage during droughts, not only because more tinder-dry vegetation burns, but because plants deprived of water grow more slowly, absorbing and storing less carbon in their tissues.

The conclusion from these early studies is that the fires have had a significant effect on the regional carbon balance, changing Colorado from a storage area to a source of atmospheric carbon. And, since carbon circulates globally, the Colorado fires even had a very small effect on the global carbon budget.

The team is also using computer models to compare different approaches to reducing wildland fire risk. To simulate regrowth of burned areas over the next 30 years, they use a scenario that includes the effects on vegetation growth rates of elevated carbon dioxide. The researchers then compare different fire management strategies. "We don’t know which method takes more carbon out of storage, mechanical thinning or prescribed burning, but that’s one of the questions we’re looking at," Schimel says.

"Land disturbance is a fundamental factor shaping ecosystems," Schimel says. Computer models have been used before to estimate how much carbon dioxide is circulating in the atmosphere, how much is stored as carbon in vegetation and soils, and how much is shifting between land storage and the atmosphere. However, "it’s much harder to take the system apart than early modeling efforts suggested," says Schimel. For example, increasing road density in the West has been correlated with increasing wildfires. Both the presence of more people to ignite fires and the impact of roads on surface and groundwater are implicated. Clearcutting and road building channel away water formerly held in place by the living forest floor, causing a drop in the water table. The current project incorporates land use, drought, soil health, and other factors to better capture the complexity of ecosystem interactions at the local level.

Projections of climate change in the West include hotter temperatures and increased drought, a recipe for more forest fires. If further research supports the project’s early findings, "We’re either going to be spending a lot more money on fire suppression or we’re going to be seeing a lot more carbon released by wildfires," Schimel says.

Writer: Zhenya Gallon

Zhenya Gallon | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Ecology, The Environment and Conservation:

nachricht Invasive Insects Cost the World Billions Per Year
04.10.2016 | University of Adelaide

nachricht Malaysia's unique freshwater mussels in danger
27.09.2016 | The University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus

All articles from Ecology, The Environment and Conservation >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

Im Focus: Ultra-thin ferroelectric material for next-generation electronics

'Ferroelectric' materials can switch between different states of electrical polarization in response to an external electric field. This flexibility means they show promise for many applications, for example in electronic devices and computer memory. Current ferroelectric materials are highly valued for their thermal and chemical stability and rapid electro-mechanical responses, but creating a material that is scalable down to the tiny sizes needed for technologies like silicon-based semiconductors (Si-based CMOS) has proven challenging.

Now, Hiroshi Funakubo and co-workers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in collaboration with researchers across Japan, have conducted experiments to...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Resolving the mystery of preeclampsia

21.10.2016 | Health and Medicine

Stanford researchers create new special-purpose computer that may someday save us billions

21.10.2016 | Information Technology

From ancient fossils to future cars

21.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>