As forest fires devour trees and other plants, they release the carbon stored in the vegetation into the atmosphere.
Scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the University of California used satellite observations of fires and a computer model to estimate just how much CO2 is released based on the amount of vegetation burned.
Overall, the study estimated that fires in the contiguous United States and Alaska release about 290-M tonnes of CO2 a year, which is about 4 to 6% of the amount of the Greenhouse gas that the nation releases through fossil fuel burning.
These wildfires can contribute a larger proportion of the CO2 released in several western and southeastern states, including Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Washington, Arkansas, Mississippi and Arizona.
A study published in of the journal Nature, found that over the past 60 years, forest fires have had the greatest direct impact on carbon emissions from the boreal forests located in the higher latitudes of Canada, Alaska and Siberia, both by the amount of carbon released as the forests burn and the emission of carbon dioxide from the soil as the sun reaches through the empty branches and promotes faster decomposition.
Fires that become large enough can release huge pulses of the gas into the atmosphere very rapidly.
“A striking implication of very large wildfires is that a severe fire season lasting only one or two months can release as much carbon as the annual emissions from the entire transportation or energy sector of an individual state,” the authors of the NCAR study wrote.
After some big wildfires in Southern California, scientists analyzed the emissions, and estimated that the fires emitted 7.9-M tonnes of carbon dioxide in a week, the equivalent of about 25% of the average monthly emissions from all fossil fuel burning in the entire state of California.
“Enormous fires like this pump a large amount of carbon dioxide quickly into the atmosphere,” the researchers said. “This can complicate efforts to understand our carbon budget and ultimately fight global warming.”
Exactly what the impacts of fire emissions on climate change are is still unclear as vegetation tends to grow back over the scorched area, and may absorb as much CO2 as was released during the blaze.
Many states, including California have not yet decided whether or not to include wildfire emissions when setting Greenhouse gas targets.
After 4 years of extreme drought, firefighters in California are preparing for what could be a dangerous wildfire season because of bone-dry grasses and an accumulation of dead, combustible trees.
Fire season is here, always take extreme care when driving, hiking and camping it the forest.
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