Climate ‘adds fuel to Asian wildfire emissions’


In the last decade, Asian farmers have cleared tens of thousands of square miles of forests to accommodate the world’s growing demand for palm oil, an increasingly popular food ingredient, reports Science Daily.

Ancient peatlands have been drained and lush tropical forests have been cut down.

As a result, the landscape of equatorial Asia now lies vulnerable to fires, which are growing more frequent and having a serious impact on the air as well as the land.

A team of NASA-sponsored researchers have used satellites to make the first series of estimates of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted from these fires — both wildfires and fires started by people — in Malaysia, Indonesia, Borneo, and Papua New Guinea.

They are now working to understand how climate influences the spread and intensity of the fires.

Using data from a carbon-detecting NASA satellite and computer models, the researchers found that seasonal fires from 2000 to 2006 doubled the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) released from the Earth to the atmosphere above the region.

The scientists also observed through satellite remote sensing that fires in regional peatlands and forests burned longer and emitted ten times more carbon when rainfall declined by one third the normal amount.

The results were presented in December 2008 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Tropical Asian fires first grabbed the attention of government officials, media, and conservationists in 1997, when fires set to clear land for palm oil and rice plantations burned out of control.

The fires turned wild and spread to dry, flammable peatlands during one of the region’s driest seasons on record. By the time the flames subsided in early 1998, emissions from the fires had reached 40 percent of the global carbon emissions for the period.

“In this region, decision makers are facing a dichotomy of demands, as expanding commercial crop production is competing with efforts to ease the environmental impact of fires,” said co-author Jim Collatz, an Earth scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

“The science is telling us that we need strategies to reduce the occurrence of deforestation fires and peatlands wildfires. Without some new strategies, emissions from the region could rise substantially in a drier, warmer future.”

Since the 1997 event, the region has been hit by two major dry spells and a steady upswing in fires, threatening biodiversity and air quality and contributing to the buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere.

As more CO2 is emitted, the global atmosphere traps more heat near Earth’s surface, leading to more drying and more fires.

Until recently, scientists knew little about what drives changes in how fires spread and how long they burn. Dr Collatz, along with lead author Guido van der Werf of Vrije University, Amsterdam, and other colleagues sought to estimate the emissions since the devastating 1997-98 fires and to analyse the interplay between the fires and drought.

They used the carbon monoxide detecting Measurements of Pollution in the Troposphere (MOPITT) instrument on NASA’s Terra satellite — as well as 1997-2006 fire data and research computer models — to screen for and differentiate between carbon emissions from deforestation versus general emissions.

Carbon monoxide is a good indicator of the occurrence of fire, and the amounts of carbon monoxide in fire emissions are related to the amount of carbon dioxide.

They also compared the emissions from different types of plant life (peat land verses typical forest) by examining changes in land cover and land use as viewed by Terra’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectradiometer (MODIS) and by Landsat 7.

Collatz explained that two climate phenomena drive regional drought.

El Nino’s warm waters in the Eastern Pacific change weather patterns around the world every few years and cause cooler water temperatures in the western Pacific near equatorial Asia that suppress the convection necessary for rainfall.

Previously, scientists have used measurements from NASA’s Tropical Rainfall Measurement Mission satellite to correlate rainfall with carbon losses and burned land data, finding that wildfire emissions rose during dry El Nino seasons.

The Indian Ocean dipole phenomenon affects climate in the Indian Ocean region with oscillating ocean temperatures characterized by warmer waters merging with colder waters to inhibit rainfall over Indonesia, Borneo, and their neighbors.

“This link between drought and emissions should be of concern to all of us,” said co-author Ruth DeFries, an ecologist at Columbia University in New York.

“If drought becomes more frequent with climate change, we can expect more fires.”

Collatz, DeFries, and their colleagues found that between 2000 and 2006, the average carbon dioxide emissions from equatorial Asia accounted for about 2 percent of global fossil fuel emissions and 3 percent of the global increase in atmospheric CO2.

But during moderate El Nino years in 2002 and 2006, when dry season rainfall was half of normal, fire emissions rose by a factor of 10. During the severe El Nino of 1997-1998, fire emissions from this region comprised 15% of global fossil fuel emissions and 31% of the global atmospheric increase over that period.

“This study not only updates our measurements of carbon losses from these fires, but also highlights an increasingly important factor driving change in equatorial Asia,” explained DeFries.

“In this part of Asia, human-ignited forest and peat fires are emitting excessive carbon into the atmosphere. In climate-sensitive areas like Borneo, human response to drought is a new dynamic affecting feedbacks between climate and the carbon cycle.”

In addition to climate influences, human activities contribute to the growing fire emissions.

Palm oil is increasingly grown for use as a cooking oil and biofuel, while also replacing trans fats in processed foods.

It has become the most widely produced edible oil in the world, and production has swelled in recent years to surpass that of soybean oil.

More than 30 million tonnes of palm oil are produced in Malaysia and Indonesia alone, and the two countries now supply more than 85% of global demand.

The environmental effects of such growth have been significant. Land has to be cleared to grow the crop, and the preferred method is fire.

The clearing often occurs in drained peatlands that are otherwise swampy forests where the remains of past plant life have been submerged for centuries in as much as 60 feet of water.

Peat material in Borneo, for example, stores the equivalent of about nine years worth of global fossil fuel emissions.

“Indonesia has become the third largest greenhouse gas emitter after the United States and China, as a result primarily to these fire emissions,” Collatz said.

“With an extended dry season, the peat surface dries out, catches fire, and the lack of rainfall can keep the fires going for months.”

Besides emitting carbon, the agricultural fires and related wildfires also ravage delicate ecosystems in conservation hotspots like the western Pacific island of Borneo, home to more than 15,000 species of plants, 240 species of trees, and an abundance of endangered animals.

Smoke and other fire emissions also regularly taint regional air quality to such a degree that officials have to close schools and airports out of concern for public health and safety.

Peat fires also aggravate air pollution problems in this region because they release four times more carbon monoxide than forest fires.

In 1997, air pollution from the fires cost the region an estimated $4.5 billion in tourism and business.

Source: Science Daily

Date: 10/05/2009

Study links forest fires to climate shift


A warming climate will fuel larger, more frequent wildfires in the Sierra Nevada and other parts of the West, and the fires will contribute to climate change, according to a new study reported in Insurance Journal.

More than 20 international scientists, in the report published in the journal Science, said fire is not only a consequence of climate change but an important cause.

“Fire also influences the climate system. This is what we call a feedback,” Jennifer Balch, a fire expert at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Scientists determined intentional deforestation fires, many set in tropical areas to expand agriculture or ranching, contribute up to a fifth of the human-caused increase in emissions of carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas helping to boost global temperatures.

The researchers called on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to fully integrate fire into its ongoing assessment of climate change.

Fire-climate feedbacks, they said, have been largely absent from global climate models.

“Extraordinary (fires are) occurring like a rash all over the planet,” said David Bowman, a forestry and wildlife expert at the University of Tasmania.

Fire of unprecedented ferocity swept across parts of Australia in February, killing about 200 people.

Similar fire activity can be expected elsewhere as the climate warms, including in the Sierra, where a 2007 blaze at Lake Tahoe destroyed 254 homes, scientists said.

“We are witnessing an increasing amount of so-called megafires,” said Thomas Swetnam, an expert on fire history and forest ecology at the University of Arizona. “Unfortunately, I think we are going to see more large fires in the western United States. The western United States is in a bull’s-eye.”

Swetnam was involved in a 2006 study that indicated increased fire activity is associated with increasing spring and autumn temperatures and an earlier spring snowmelt in western mountains.

That study found that wildfire frequency spiked to nearly four times the average experienced from 1970 to 1986, with the area burned more than six times previous levels.

The average length of the fire season increased by 78 days between 1987 and 2003 compared with 1970 to 1986, with fires starting earlier and burning later into the season.

Source: Insurance Journal

Date: 30/04/2009

Key role of forests ‘may be lost’


Forests’ role as massive carbon sinks is “at risk of being lost entirely”, the BBC’s Mark Kinver has reported top forestry scientists as warning.

The International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) says forests are under increasing degrees of stress as a result of climate change.

Forests could release vast amounts of carbon if temperatures rise 2.5C (4.5F) above pre-industrial levels, it adds.

The findings will be presented at the UN Forum on Forests, which begins on Monday in New York.

Compiled by 35 leading forestry scientists, the report provides what is described as the first global assessment of the ability of forests to adapt to climate change.

“We normally think of forests as putting the brakes on global warming,” observed Professor Risto Seppala from the Finnish Forest Research Institute, who chaired the report’s expert panel.

“But over the next few decades, damage induced by climate change could cause forests to release huge quantities of carbon and create a situation in which they do more to accelerate warming than to slow it down.”

The scientists hope that the report, called Adaption of Forests and People to Climate Change – A Global Assessment, will help inform climate negotiators.

The international climate debate has focused primarily on emissions from deforestation, but the researchers say their analysis shows that attention must also be paid to the impacts of climate change on forests.

While deforestation is responsible for about 20% of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, forests currently absorb more carbon than they emit.

But the problem is that the balance could shift as the planet warms, the report concludes, and the sequestration service provided by the forest biomes “could be lost entirely if the Earth heats up by 2.5C or more”.

The assessment says higher temperatures – along with prolonged droughts, more pest invasions, and other environmental stresses – would trigger considerable forest destruction and degradation.

This could create a dangerous feedback loop, it adds, in which damage to forests from climate change would increase global carbon emissions that then exacerbate global warming.

The report’s key findings include:

  • Droughts are projected to become more intense and frequent in subtropical and southern temperate forests
  • Commercial timber plantations are set to become unviable in some areas, but more productive in others
  • Climate change could result in “deepening poverty, deteriorating public health, and social conflict” among African forest-dependent communities

The IUFRO assessment will be considered by delegates at the eighth session of the UN Forum on Forests, which has the objective of promoting the “management, conservation and sustainable development of all types of forest”.

Co-author Professor Andreas Fischlin from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology commented: “Even if adaption measures are fully implemented, unmitigated climate change would – during the course of the current century – exceed the adaptive capacity of many forests.

“The fact remains that the only way to ensure that forests do not suffer unprecedented harm is to achieve large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”

Source: BBC News website

Date: 18/04/2009

Taiwanese urged to plant trees for environmental protection


The Taiwanese public have been urged to participate in a tree-planting activity organised by Cingjing Veterans Farm in central Taiwan’s Nantou County, reports Taiwan News.

The annual event, called LOHAS Tree Planting Fun, was launched three years ago by the farm in conjunction with 7-Eleven of Uni-President Corp and the Good Neighbor Foundation, with the aim of promoting the idea of eco-conservation through tree planting.

According to the organisers, this year’s event have been the biggest to date, with 2,642 cherry, peach, plum, sweet osmanthus, camellia and azalea saplings being planted in the Little Swiss Garden, located on the farm.

An additional 1,000 cherry saplings are being planted alongside a “natural ecology path” surrounding the farm.

The organisers added that about 200 staff from 7-Eleven and 80 volunteers will also take part in the activity.

Meals and accommodation for the volunteers will be sponsored by the farm and the Cingjing Tourism Development and Promotional Association, and a memorial plaque will be erected to acknowledge their efforts.

“We hope that this activity will raise public awareness that it is very difficult but absolutely necessary to protect the ecology,” a spokesman for Uni-President said.

“We hope to call on more volunteers to take care of these plants and contribute to nature conservation.”

Noting that each tree will not only absorb 25 kg of carbon dioxide but will also produce 19 kg of oxygen each year, the organizers said planting trees to help offset greenhouse gas emissions has become a shared responsibility of everyone on the planet, especially at a time when climate change is worsening because of growing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Source: Taiwan News

Date: 20/03/2009

Forest fires ‘to add to climate concerns’


The fierce bushfires that scorched Australia’s Victoria State released millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide, a leading scientist has warned.

Forest fires could become a growing source of carbon pollution as the planet warms, he told Reuters news agency.

Mark Adams of the University of Sydney said global warming could trigger a vicious cycle in which forests could stop becoming sinks of CO2, further accelerating the rise of the planet-warming gas in the atmosphere.

“With increasing concerns about rising CO2, rising temperatures and reduced rainfall in many of the forested areas, then we could well see much greater emissions from forest fires,” added Professor Adams, dean of the Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.

The Victoria fires, which killed more than 200 people, were the worst in the nation’s history and many were still burning weeks later.

“Scientists worldwide are worried about fires and forests.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s the Arctic tundra fires, or peat fires in Kalimantan or bushfires in Australia,” observed the Australian researcher, who has worked in collaboration with the Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre.

In a submission to the United Nations last year, the Australian government said wildfires in 2003 released 190 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent, roughly a third of the nation’s total greenhouse gas emissions for the year.

Such large, one-off releases of CO2 and other greenhouse gases such as methane, are not presently accounted for in Australia’s annual list of national greenhouse gas emissions.

If they were, the country would vastly exceed its emission limits under the Kyoto Protocol, the United Nations’ main weapon to fight climate change.

This is one reason, critics say, why Australia is calling for amendments to UN rules on land use change, so that only human activities that “can be practicably influenced” are included.

Professor Adams said the UN climate summit at the end of the year in Denmark should discuss the growing threat from forest fires and how to develop better legal frameworks to tackle the problem.

In a study of how much carbon Australia’s forests and soil can store, he estimated that fires in 2003, which ravaged the capital Canberra, and in 2006-07 released about 550 million tonnes of CO2.

The current fires had already burned hundreds of thousands of hectares, he said, in areas with total carbon content of 200 tonnes per hectare or more.

Australia, though, was not his only concern; annual fires in Indonesia also release vast amounts of CO2.

Huge fires in 1997 released up to 6 billion tonnes of CO2, covering South-East Asia in a thick haze and causing a spike in global levels of the gas.

Research on the forest and peat fires by a team of international scientists found the blazes released the equivalent of up 40% of global annual emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Professor Adams described the findings as a “wake-up call”.

“When you see the step-increases (of CO2) that they observed, we have to sit up and take notice, that fires are a major problem,” he said.

In the past, he explained, native forest carbon had been in rough equilibrium over millions of years with fires, with very small accretion of carbon over very long periods of time.

“But then if you add rapid climate change and much greater fire frequency, the equilibrium carbon content of the native forests, instead of going up, is going to go down.”

Source: Reuters


Date: 26/02/2009

Norway to pay Guyana to protect rainforests


Norway will provide financial support for Guyana’s ambitious plan to conserve its rainforests, reports Mongabay.com.

During a meeting in Oslo, Guyana President Bharrat Jagdeo and Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg signedan agreement to establish a partnership to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD).

It is also understood that the leaders will also push for the incorporation of a REDD mechanism that includes low deforestation countries like Guyana in a post-2012 climate change agreement.

“We agreed that if the world is to prevent irreversible climate change, it is essential that greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest degradation are drastically reduced,” the men said in a statement.

It continued: “To achieve this vital objective, they agreed that determined and concerted action is needed.

“They emphasised that efforts under the UNFCCC towards REDD must be properly designed to ensure that deforestation is significantly reduced in countries where it is already occurring, and avoided in countries where deforestation rates are still low.”

Mr Stoltenberg added that REDD “would provide funding for provide funding for a shift away from forest-dependent employment and income generation, towards support for the creation of low carbon development and low deforestation economies”.

Norway’s financial commitment was not specified, although the statement noted that the Scandinavian country was “prepared to provide performance-based, substantial and sustained compensation for the progress Guyana makes in limiting emissions from deforestation at low levels and further decreasing forest degradation”.

The agreement includes the establishment of a “reputable international organisation” to distribute funds for low-carbon development based on Guyana’s performance.

President Jagdeo welcomed the deal: “The developing and the developed countries must work together to address global warming. I commend the government of Norway for showing leadership through its climate and forest initiative.”

Norway has pledged up to $430 million per year to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries.

To date, it has already committed up to $1bn to Brazil’s Sustainable Amazon Fund, provided the South American country meet targets for reducing deforestation.

Source: Mongabay.com

Date: 05/02/2009

Forests and farms ‘can fight climate change’


The problem of global warming from greenhouse gases calls for a stronger involvement of agriculture and farming communities, as well as forestry and forest users in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has said.

“Agriculture and deforestation are major contributors to climate change, but by the same token farmers and forest users could become key players in reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” said FAO assistant directo-general Alexander Muller.

“Unlocking the potential of agriculture and forestry for climate change mitigation requires financing mechanisms targeting farmers and foresters around the globe, particularly small-scale land-users in developing countries,” he added.

“These mechanisms should give priority to emission-reducing measures that have ‘co-benefits’ for food and energy security, poverty reduction, sustainable use of natural resources. Forestry and agriculture offer many opportunities for such ‘win-win’ measures.

According to the FAO, greenhouse gas emissions from forestry and agriculture contribute more than 30% of the current annual total emissions (deforestation and forest degradation accounts for 17.4%, while agriculture is responsible for 13.5%).

When looking at methane, the FAO says that agriculture is responsible for half of the annual emissions (primarily through livestock and rice), and more that 75% of nitrous oxide (largely from fertiliser application) emitted annually by human activities.

“Climate change will affect the lives and livelihoods of farmers, fishers and forest users in developing countries, many of whom are already facing difficulties in earning a sufficient income and feeding their families,” Mr Muller continued.

Rural communities, particularly those living in already environmentally fragile areas, face an immediate and ever-growing risk of increased crop failure, loss of livestock, and reduced availability of marine, aquaculture and forest products.

Humans, plants, livestock and fish also face the risk of being exposed to new pests and diseases.

Mr Muller concluded that climate change had the potential to increase hunger, particularly in the world’s poorest nations.

“We have to act now if we want to avoid a humanitarian disaster,” he said.

Roughly 40% of the land biomass is directly or indirectly managed by farmers, foresters or herders.

He added: “The international community can only win the global battle against climate change if we succeed in mobilizing the potential of these land users to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and in sequestering carbon in soil and plants.

“We have to adapt to climate changes that are of greater intensity and rapidity than in the past.”

Source: FAO press release

Date: 04/12/2008

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