Stopping wildfires may be key to slowing climate change

Wildfires are often thought of as a result of climate change and global warming, but experts are learning that they also contribute to climate change.

Wildfires made headlines this summer as drought worsened fires in California. Fewer relief efforts are targeting fires that are burning remote areas, such as in Alaska’s boreal forests, because lives and property are not at risk. However, a new report from Scientific American found that putting out a few remote fires could drastically cut the United States’ carbon emissions and help fight climate change.

The report found that 3.1 million acres of Alaska have been charred by wildfires, accounting for more than half of the 5.7 million acres burned in the United States this year. Within these acres, wildfires burned boreal forests that have high levels of carbon in the trees and soil. The fires pump high emissions of carbon pollution into the atmosphere, equivalent to driving 32 million gas-powered cars over the course of a year. Alaska alone is responsible for half of the United States’ carbon dioxide fire emissions, mostly due to burning boreal forests.

University of Oregon Professor Emeritus Bart Johnson said wildfires, particularly those that burn boreal forests, create an amplifying feedback loop. Climate change increases the frequency and severity of wildfires as temperatures rise and droughts set in. Wildfires then contribute to global warming by releasing carbon into the atmosphere.

“It’s really important to reduce the spread of some really big wildfires outside of historical ranges,” Johnson said news weekwhich states that suppressing all wildfires is not a solution either.

Aerial view of burnt trees in Canada
Dead trees are seen in this April 17, 2017 aerial photo near Fort McMurray, Canada, one year after a large wildfire. In the US, Alaska alone is responsible for half of the country’s carbon dioxide fire emissions, mostly due to wildfires in boreal forests.
ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

Instead, it’s a delicate balance between avoiding large amounts of carbon emissions from runaway fires and recognizing the positive impacts of wildfires.

That Scientific American The research does not propose to extinguish boreal wildfires entirely, but to manage them at pre-climate levels. Management is not a cheap solution, representing an annual investment of $700 million by 2030. Scientific American‘s proposal is five times what is currently being invested in fire management in Alaska.

“Funding would support additional staff and more planes, drones and other technical resources to monitor and extinguish these fires while they are small. That’s certainly a significant budget increase,” the study said.

Boreal forests have relied on wildfires for thousands of years, and only recently have these wildfires spiraled out of control as climate change increases their frequency and severity.

“Boreal fires are very common and very natural. They’ve been part of this system for 5,000 years,” said Catherine Dieleman, associate professor at the University of Guelph news week. “There’s a really important relationship between fire and vegetation.”

On average, boreal fires return every 100 years, and organisms like black spruce have learned to rely on this cycle. But Dieleman, an expert on boreal forest ecology, said the relationship is changing as wildfires occur more frequently due to warmer weather, extreme drought and an increase in lightning strikes.

“This is where we start to have this problem between climate change and wildfires,” she said.

The study encouraged the United States to work with Canada and Russia to limit carbon emissions from boreal wildfires and take responsibility on all aspects of climate change.

“We cannot stop global warming without drastically reducing and ultimately eliminating fossil fuel emissions,” she said Scientific American report said. “But we also need to control emissions from boreal wildfires. We ignore these wildfires and their accelerating climate impact at our peril.” Stopping wildfires may be key to slowing climate change

Rick Schindler

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