New research outlines global threat of smoldering peat fires

peat fire

A smoldering peatland fire in shown in a drained lakebed in Florida, where the fire smoldered for months and consumed several feet of organic soil in some places. Credit: Desert Research Institute, the environmental research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education.

“The scary thing is future climate change may … dry out peatlands. If peatlands become more vulnerable to fire worldwide, this will exacerbate climate change in an unending loop.”  Guido R. van der Werf

Six researchers have written a paper about how climate change is expected to increase the number of peat fires worldwide. This is disturbing for a number of reasons, including the health effects of the additional smoke that humans must breathe, and the additional carbon in the atmosphere may “exacerbate climate change in an unending loop.”

The researchers — Merritt R. Turetsky, Brian Benscoter, Susan Page, Guillermo Rein, Guido R. van der Werf, and Adam Watts — all work for universities. Even though the funding was supplied by five government agencies, if you want to read their paper at Nature Geoscience it will cost you between $5 and $32. Open Access is apparently not a priority for the universities and government agencies that are responsible for this important taxpayer funded research. The agencies that funded the research, other than the universities that employ the scientists, are National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, The European Research Council, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the Desert Research Institute’s Division of Atmospheric Sciences (the environmental research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education).

Government agencies should not fund research unless there is a guarantee that the results will be immediately, freely, and easily available on the internet.

Below is an article about their findings, supplied by the Desert Research Institute, the environmental research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education, the employer of Mr. Watts.

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The natural disaster plays out like a movie script – ash falling from the sky, thick smoke shutting down airports and businesses across the globe, and uncontrollable fires burning for days and weeks. But this is not from a script; rather, it is a vivid description of a future climate change scenario in which the Earth’s peat-rich regions become more susceptible to drying and burning.

New research published this week in the journal Nature Geoscience, co-authored by Adam Watts, a fire ecologist at Nevada’s Desert Research Institute (DRI) and deputy director of DRI’s Climate, Ecosystems, Fire and Applications Program, outlines the threat of drying peatlands (also known as mires) across the globe and their increased vulnerability to fire and carbon loss.

Peatlands – which make up around three-percent of the Earth’s land surface and store approximately 25-percent of the world’s soil carbon – are deposits of plant material and organic matter mixed with soil that is too wet to support high levels of decomposition. Peatlands are found on all seven continents.

Already the largest fires on Earth in terms of their carbon footprint, these smoldering fires burn through thick layers of peat, built up over thousands of years, which blanket the ground in ecosystems ranging from the tropics to the arctic.

“When people picture a forest fire, they probably think of flames licking up into tree tops, and animals trying to escape,” said the study’s lead author Merritt Turetsky, a professor of Integrative Biology at University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. “But peat fires tend to be creeping ground fires. They can burn for days and weeks, even under relatively wet conditions. They lack the drama of flames, but they produce a lot of smoke.”

That smoke contains large amounts of carbon and makes peat fires dangerous to human health. It can worsen air quality and even trigger asthma and other respiratory problems.

“In addition to the amount of carbon released, the types of emissions also can make smoldering fires of greater concern than fires where most of the combustion takes place in flames,” said Watts, who is studying the emissions from burning peat and many other types of organic fuels with his DRI colleagues to determine their potential effects in the atmosphere and on our global climate.

“Peat fires are an example of wildfires having effects far beyond the areas where they occur, and these effects can last for a very long time,” he added.

Turetsky and former University of Guelph post-doctoral researcher Brian Benscoter teamed up with temperate and tropical fire scientists to summarize what is known about peat fires, from massive lightning-ignited fires that burn large areas of the boreal region to tropical fires often triggered by human activity.

“The tropical peatlands in Southeast Asia are a clear demonstration of how human activity can alter the natural relationships between ecosystems and fire,” explained Susan Page, a University of Leicester professor and co-author on the study. “Tropical peatlands are highly resistant to natural fires, but in recent decades, humans have drained peatlands for plantation agriculture. People cause the deep layers of peat to dry out, and also greatly increase the number of fire ignitions. It’s a double threat.”

This causes a host of problems, including health issues, airport and school closures, and political tensions.

The paper concludes that almost all peat-rich regions will become more susceptible to drying and burning with a changing climate. The authors also note that the ecology of peat fires and the role of peat fires in long-term Earth system processes need to be explored more thoroughly in future research.

“Thanks to satellite data, we are fully aware of the vast scale of burning in drained peatlands, mostly in Indonesia,” said co-author Guido van der Werf, a professor at Amsterdam’s VU University. “The scary thing,” Werf added,” is future climate change may actually do the same thing: dry out peatlands. If peatlands become more vulnerable to fire worldwide, this will exacerbate climate change in an unending loop.”

This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, The European Research Council, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the Desert Research Institute’s Division of Atmospheric Sciences.

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Report: with climate change, higher emphasis should be placed on community preparedness in BC

Norbeck prescribed fire

Norbeck prescribed fire, Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park, October 20, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A report commissioned by the British Columbia Forests Ministry suggests that with impending climate change, more emphasis should be placed on preparing structures and communities to co-exist with fire, rather than hoping to suppress every fire.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Vancouver Sun. Unfortunately the author conflates the prevention of fires with fuel reduction and community preparedness.

As the planet heats up and the risk of “mega fires” rises, B.C. will no longer be able to lean on its world-class wildfire-fighting teams to keep people and property safe, according to a draft provincial document.

The Forests Ministry paper, called Climate Change Adaption Action Plan for Wildfire Management 2014-2024, suggests fire prevention should become the top priority of the province.

“It is not an option to continue to increase fire suppression response and associated costs, because even the most aggressive action would neither be safe nor effective for the extreme wildfire events such as those seen in Kelowna in 2003 and Slave Lake in 2010,” reads the draft, obtained through an access to information request.

“During these events, suppression response cannot be relied upon to protect communities or natural resource values. The only protection provided will be the protection established before the fire, provided through wildland-urban interface fuel reduction and landscape fire management…”

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Lightning strikes to increase 50% by end of century

As if we don’t have enough to worry about with climate change already, a study found that lightning strikes in the United States will likely increase by nearly 50 percent by the end of the century as the world gets warmer and wetter.

Here is an excerpt from an AP article:

[Researchers] concluded that for every degree Fahrenheit the world warms in the future, lightning strikes will go up nearly 7 percent. That’s 12 percent for every degree Celsius.

Because scientists forecast that the world may get about 7 degrees warmer (4 degrees Celsius) by the end of the century, based on current carbon dioxide emission trends, that comes to a 50 percent increase in lightning strikes, said David Romps. He’s the atmospheric scientist at the University of California Berkeley who led the study.

“When you used to have two lightning strikes, now you’ll have three,” Romps said. “It’s a substantial increase.”

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Rising temperature trend in California, January through August

California, average temperature, January through August

California, average temperature, January through August

The NOAA data above showing the trend in temperature in California during the first eight months of the year, is impressive. The average temperature this year shattered the record. It illustrates that you should not get excited about the weather on one day, or one season, or even one decade. There is a great deal of variability. The long-term trend has the big picture.

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Report: trees are dying from no obvious cause in the Rocky Mountains

A report issued by the Union of Concern Scientists concluded that in some areas of the Rocky Mountains trees are dying from no obvious cause:

Besides increases in tree-killing insects and wildfires, scientists have found a rise in “background mortality”—the rate at which trees die from no obvious cause. For example, tree mortality in relatively undisturbed old-growth forests across the West has doubled in recent decades, with no compensating increase in the number of tree seedlings. And tree mortality has been highest in recent years.

But, the report goes on to suggest that hotter and drier conditions across the West are driving these changes. There are other factors impacting the health of trees the document says, including, tree-killing insects and more wildfires.

Notable are the effects on three “iconic tree species”, as you can see in this excerpt:

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Whitebark pines (Pinus albicaulis)—a high-elevation species with unique ecological importance in the Northern Rockies— have faced both blister rust and epidemic-level infestations of mountain pine beetles, part of the recent West-wide outbreak. Earlier outbreaks of mountain pine beetles at high elevations were shorter and less severe, because winter temperatures were typically cold enough to kill the beetles. However, the sustained higher temperatures of recent winters have allowed the beetles to overwinter and thrive. Today whitebark pines are in catastrophic decline throughout their range in western North America. Mortality in some areas has been 90 percent to 100 percent. This die-off has led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine that they are in such risk of extinction that they qualify for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides), an emblematic species of the Rocky Mountains, have seen abrupt and extensive die-off across large areas of their range, in response to extreme heat and dryness at the beginning of this century. From 2000 to 2010, some 1.3 million acres in the Southern Rockies saw significant aspen decline, and regeneration of new aspens has been much lower than normal.

Piñon pines (Pinus edulis) are a foundation species of the forests that flank the Southern Rockies and many other areas in the Southwest. In 2002–2003, these areas suffered a mass die-off of piñon pines triggered by severe drought and exceptional heat. Sites in Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, near Los Alamos in northern New Mexico, and near Flagstaff, AZ, lost some 90 percent of their piñon pines. One team of scientists described the mass piñon pine die-off as “one of the most extensively documented examples of a sudden ecosystem crash in response to climate change.”  ”

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Wildfire briefing, September 10, 2014

Time-lapse video of Meadow Fire

time-lapse video of the Meadow Fire

Screen grab from the NPS time-lapse video of the Meadow Fire.

The National Park Service has posted a very cool time-lapse video of the early hours of the expansion of the Meadow Fire when it grew from 19 acres to over 700. More information about the Meadow Fire.

“Send the elevator back down”

Mentoring young firefighters who have the potential to become future leaders is one of the more important responsibilities of seasoned wildland firefighters. Of course the same principle applies in other fields as well. The award winning actor Kevin Spacey has been doing this for years through his Kevin Spacey Foundation and by leading workshops to cultivate emerging artists in the performing arts.

In an interview with NBCNews he was asked what motivated him to get involved in mentoring young artists. He said:

Jack Lemmon – who was my mentor – passed along his philosophy of “sending the elevator back down” and so I am continuing to do exactly that through the work of my Foundation.

Happy Camp Fire Complex achieves Megafire status

The huge fire on the Klamath National Forest continues to work its way across the landscape of northwest California. The Incident Management Team reports it has now burned 105,194 acres, crossing what we call the unofficial threshold of 100,000 acres to obtain the Megafire label. The Team is calling it 30 percent contained.

No residences had been damaged or destroyed on the fire until Monday, when two burned in the Scott River Road area. One of those belonged to 75-year old Nancy Hood who has been continuously staffing a fire lookout for 56 years on the Klamath National Forest. A fund has been established to help Ms. Wood in her time of need. We posted more information about the effort earlier today.

Smokejumpers warn about link between climate change and wildfires

A group of seven Montana smokejumpers have written an opinion piece that was published in the Missoulian.

Below are some excerpts:

…Scientists say that climate change has implications for wildfire danger. We believe them. Since the 1980s, Montana’s wildfire season increased by two months while average global temperatures have steadily trended upward. Climate researcher Steve Running has summarized the data this way: “Since 1986, longer, warmer summers have resulted in a fourfold increase of major wildfires and a sixfold increase in the area of forest burned, compared to the period from 1970 to 1986.” – Science, Vol. 13:927 (2006).

Drought caused by warming temperatures exacerbated the recent pine beetle infestation, which is 10 times larger than any previously recorded. Millions of dead trees provide more fuel for fires and create more risk for those on the front lines.

[…]

We know that many Montanans share our concerns about rising fire danger. While aggressive intervention in wildfires will always be needed, we also need prevention strategies – and that means dealing with climate change. Preventing climate change isn’t possible, but limiting climate change is.

Montana has abundant clean energy resources such as wind and solar power that can provide significant statewide economic benefits. We need prevention strategies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to decrease carbon pollution from the largest point sources – coal-fired power plants. We can create good-paying jobs in clean energy. We can protect our climate and our wildlands, and we can save lives, property and jobs in doing so.

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Mike.

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