Alaskan Forest Fires Could Make Climate Change Much Worse

Illustration for article titled Alaskan Forest Fires Could Make Climate Change Much Worse

If humans want to limit global warming, we’ll need to drastically reduce our carbon pollution. We might need to do so even faster than our models suggest, because as scientists are now discovering, there’s an additional factor working against us: fire.

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Last week, we learned that Indonesia is in the midst of a devastating fire season, one that’s sending as much carbon skyward as the entire US economy. Indonesia isn’t alone — Western North America is currently recovering from one of the most brutal fire seasons in memory. Like Indonesian peatlands, boreal forests across Canada and Alaska sequester tremendous amounts of carbon in their soils. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that North American fires, too, are now contributing to Earth’s dangerously high carbon emissions.

Illustration for article titled Alaskan Forest Fires Could Make Climate Change Much Worse

Aerial view of Alaskan fires captured this summer by NASA’s Terra satellite. Image Credit: NASA

This week, a report in Nature Climate Change reached a disturbing conclusion concerning the Yukon Flats, a remote region of northern Alaska that burned heavily throughout the summer. Using an ecosystem model to reconstruct fire conditions over the past millennium, the researchers showed that the Yukon Flats is experiencing a “rapid increase in fire activity,” a trend that’s caused carbon storage to decline 12% since 1950. As we suspected, fires are causing centuries-old soil carbon to go up in smoke.

What’s happening in Indonesian peatlands and Alaskan boreal forests could be happening all over the world. A study published this summer in Nature Communications concluded that fire weather seasons have, on average, grown 18.7 percent longer since 1979, and that the global burnable area affected by fire season has doubled. Ecosystems that shouldn’t burn at all, such as the temperate rainforests of Washington State and Oregon, are starting to combust. Climate change is setting the world on fire, and that’s creating a huge new source of greenhouse gas emissions—amplifying global warming, in a vicious feedback loop.

This December, leaders from all 196 countries will meet in Paris to hash out a global climate accord that will set the trajectory of human carbon emissions for decades, if not centuries, to come. Hopefully, knowledge about this vicious cycle of climate change and forest fires will strengthen world leaders’ resolve to agree on policies that make a substantial dent in our carbon emissions, paving the way toward a fossil fuel-free future. We’ll be keeping you up-to-date with all the important climate news as Paris draws near, so stay tuned.

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[Read the full study at Nature Climate Change h/t The Washington Post]

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Top image: Shutterstock

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DISCUSSION

bishopxo85
Bishop

Here is the thing though... if you truly believe in Global Warming, then you know it is already too late to do anything about it. Our time for saving our planet and changing our ways ended YEARS ago, this is going to happen and there is NOTHING that humans can do to stop it. Even if you stopped all carbon emissions right now and somehow created a system that could pull carbon from the atmosphere at an astonishing rate without creating further carbon emissions... it still wouldn’t stop the process. So yeah it’s great that world leaders are meeting on this but it is a waste of time and energy.