Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Northern wildfires threaten runaway climate change, study reveals

Date:
December 6, 2010
Source:
University of Guelph
Summary:
A new study reveals that fires in the Alaskan interior have become more severe in the last decade, resulting in more carbon being released than is being stored. About half the world's soil carbon is locked in northern permafrost and peatland soils. The increased burning is shifting these ecosystems from a carbon sink to a carbon source.

This is an image of wildfires in the Alaskan Interior. A new study reveals that climate change is causing these fires to burn more fiercely over the last decade which has resulted in an increase in greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere.
Credit: Roger Ottmar, US Forest Service

Climate change is causing wildfires to burn more fiercely, pumping more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than previously thought, according to a new study to be published in Nature Geoscience this week.

This is the first study to reveal that fires in the Alaskan interior -- an area spanning 18.5 million hectares -- have become more severe in the past 10 years, and have released much more carbon into the atmosphere than was stored by the region's forests over the same period.

"When most people think of wildfires, they think about trees burning, but most of what fuels a boreal fire is plant litter, moss and organic matter in surface soils," said University of Guelph professor Merritt Turetsky, lead author of the study.

"These findings are worrisome because about half the world's soil carbon is locked in northern permafrost and peatland soils. This is carbon that has accumulated in ecosystems a little bit at a time for thousands of years, but is being released very rapidly through increased burning."

The results of this study are important for countries currently meeting in Mexico for climate talks, added the integrative biology professor.

"Essentially this could represent a runaway climate change scenario in which warming is leading to larger and more intense fires, releasing more greenhouse gases and resulting in more warming. This cycle can be broken for a number of reasons, but likely not without dramatic changes to the boreal forest as we currently know it."

This study is part of a growing body of evidence that northern systems are bearing the brunt of climate change, said co-author Jennifer Harden, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist.

"This includes longer snow-free seasons, changes in vegetation, loss of ice and permafrost, and now fire, which is shifting these systems from a global carbon sink toward a carbon source."

The researchers visited almost 200 forest and peatland sites shortly after blazes were extinguished to measure how much biomass burnt.

"We've been chasing fires in this region for a number of years, which is how we amassed this unique data set," said Turetsky.

They also looked at fire records kept since the 1950s.

"Over the past 10 years, burned area has doubled in interior Alaska, mostly because of increased burning late in the fire season," said co-author Eric Kasischke, a University of Maryland professor. "This is the first study that has demonstrated that increases in burned area are clearly linked to increases in fire severity. This not only impacts carbon storage, but also will accelerate permafrost loss and changes in forest cover."

More severe burning also raises a number of health concerns, as fire emissions contain mercury and particulate matter that can cause respiratory issues, said Turetsky.

"We are hoping people will recognize the seriousness of climate change for northern regions and people living in them. Wildfire is going to play a more and more important role in shaping the north."


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Guelph. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Merritt R. Turetsky, Evan S. Kane, Jennifer W. Harden, Roger D. Ottmar, Kristen L. Manies, Elizabeth Hoy & Eric S. Kasischke. Recent acceleration of biomass burning and carbon losses in Alaskan forests and peatlands. Nature Geoscience, 05 December 2010 DOI: 10.1038/ngeo1027

Cite This Page:

University of Guelph. "Northern wildfires threaten runaway climate change, study reveals." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 6 December 2010. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/12/101205202514.htm>.
University of Guelph. (2010, December 6). Northern wildfires threaten runaway climate change, study reveals. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 1, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/12/101205202514.htm
University of Guelph. "Northern wildfires threaten runaway climate change, study reveals." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/12/101205202514.htm (accessed October 1, 2014).

Share This



More Earth & Climate News

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Earth Has Lost Half Its Vertebrate Wildlife Since 1970: WWF

Earth Has Lost Half Its Vertebrate Wildlife Since 1970: WWF

Newsy (Sep. 30, 2014) A new study published by the World Wide Fund for Nature found that more than half of the world's wildlife population has declined since 1970. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Seismic Activity Halts Recovery at Japan Volcano

Seismic Activity Halts Recovery at Japan Volcano

AP (Sep. 30, 2014) Rescuers were forced to suspend plans to recover at least two dozen bodies from near the summit of Mount Ontake in central Japan on Tuesday after increased seismic activity raised concern about the possibility of another eruption. (Sept. 30) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Dolphins Might Use Earth's Magnetic Field As A GPS

Dolphins Might Use Earth's Magnetic Field As A GPS

Newsy (Sep. 30, 2014) A study released Monday suggests dolphins might be able to sense the Earth's magnetic field and possibly use it as a means of navigation. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
How To Battle Stink Bug Season

How To Battle Stink Bug Season

Newsy (Sep. 30, 2014) Homeowners in 33 states grapple with stink bugs moving indoors at this time of year. Here are a few tips to avoid stink bug infestations. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Plants & Animals

Earth & Climate

Fossils & Ruins

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins