Indonesia ‘failing on pledge to reduce forest fires’


The Indonesian government failed to live up to its promises to reduce fires across the tropical nation last year, reports Mongabay.com.Take Cover library picture

It quotes The Jakarta Post as saying that the nation’s 2009 State Environment Report revealed a 59% increase in the number of fire hotspots from 19,192 in 2008 to 32,416 last year.

Officials are reported as saying that land clearing was the primary cause because, unlike temperature forests, intact rainforests rarely burn naturally.

“Illegal land clearing with fires by local people in Kalimantan and Sumatra is still rampant,” Heddy Mukna, deputy assistant for forest and land management at the Environment Ministry told the Post.

The state of Kalimantan on the island of Borneo saw fires triple in some areas from 2008 to 2009.

Haze blanketed much of the island last year during the “burning season”.

In 2007, the Indonesian government announced plan to cut forest fires in half to mitigate climate change from 35,279 fires in 2006.

The government has since revised that reduction from 50% to just 20%.

Indonesia is the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world behind China and the US.

An estimated 80% of the nation’s 2.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions is from rainforest and peatland destruction.

Source: Mongabay.com

Date: 13/06/2010

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Amazon forest fires ‘on the rise’


The number of fires destroying Amazon rainforests are increasing, a study has found.

Take Cover library pictureThe BBC’s Mark Kinver reports that a team of scientists said fires in the region could release similar amounts of carbon as deliberate deforestation.

Reporting on a paper published in the journal Science, Kinver says the researchers found that that fire occurrence rates had increased in 59% of areas with reduced deforestation.

As a result, the rise in fires could jeopardise the long-term success of schemes to reduce emissions from deforestation, they added.

The researchers – from the University of Exeter, UK, and Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research – based their findings on satellite-derived data on deforestation and forest fires.

“The results were a surprise because we expected that fires would have decreased with the decrease of deforestation,” said co-author Luiz Aragao from the University of Exeter.

“The implication for REDD is that we first need a system that can monitor fires,” he told the Science journal.

“There is also a need to shift land use in the Amazon to a system where fire is not used.”

‘Slash and burn’

REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) schemes aim to create a financil value for the carbon stored in developing nations’ tropical forests.

It offers nations incentives to protect forest areas from a variety of impacts that release carbon into the atmosphere, including tree felling and logging, agricultural expansion, land degradation.

As deforestation accounts for about 20% of emissions resulting from human activity, the REDD programmes are considered to be a key component in the global effort to curb climate change.

“Fires following drought years are likely to release a similar amount of carbon as emissions from deliberate deforestation,” the researchers wrote.

“The higher probability of a drier Amazon in the 21st Century predicted by some global circulation models… may push Amazonia towards an amplified fire-prone system.”

They added that previous studies showed that fires in the region increased after large-scale droughts in 1998 and 2005.

“Forest landscapes in Amazonia are becoming more fragmented and, therefore, a growing proportion of forests is exposed to the leakage of accidental fires from adjacent farms,” they suggested.

The practice of “slash and burn” is widely used by farmers in the Amazon region to clear secondary forests and allow food and cash crops to be cultivated.

But Dr Aragao said: “We need to change the way people use and manage their land so that they can do this without fire.”

Commenting on the paper’s findings, Andrew Mitchell, director of the Global Canopy Programme, said: “These results have important implications for REDD negotiations.

“If we are to control deforestation, you have got to look at what local people are doing outside of the forests,” he told BBC News.

“The entire REDD regime need to encourage a better use of land without fire.

“But if they do not use fire, which is cheap, then what are they going to use – strimmers? Chainsaws? Tractors?

“That means that money from REDD programmes need to go to people that not only live within the forests, but also the farmers living outside them.”

Dr Aragao agreed, adding that switching to fire-free land management in already deforested area that lie next to forests could “drastically reduce fires and carbon emissions”.

“It would be expensive,” he observed, “but it would protect the stability of Amazonian carbon stocks and diversity.”

Pieter van Lierop, a forestry officer for the Food and Agriculture Organization (FA) – a member of the UN’s REDD programme, said the findings were relevant to policies aimed at reducing deforestation.

“The article clearly demonstrates that within REDD, specific attention should go to analyzing the role of fire and propose more responsible use of fire and/or alternatives for fire,” he told BBC News.

“However, we should also take into consideration that the article is mainly discussing fire incidence and occurence, meaning number of fires and not the size of emissions.”

Source: BBC News website

Date: 06/06/2010

Forest fire emissions ‘poisoning Arctic environment’


Forest fires and straw and stubble burning in North America and Eastern Europe are leading to record-high concentrations of the environmental toxin PCB over the Arctic island of Svalbard, a report warns.

Take Cover library imageOver the past decades, persistent organic pollutants (POPs) have been found in large concentrations in Arctic areas.

These substances accumulate in living organisms and are enriched throughout the food chain.

Polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) is one of the most important environmental toxins of this type.

“We wanted to draw attention to the causes of the environmental impact in the Arctic and trace the sources of the problem,” said Sabine Eckhardt, a researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU).

When biomass from trees and dead grass and leaves catches fire, it releases both PCB and other environmental toxins and creates yet another source of PCB emissions.

In 2004 and 2006, big fires ravaged these areas. About 5.8m hectares of coniferous forest burned down in North America, while Eastern Europe experienced extensive emissions from agriculture due to straw and stubble burning.

Several weeks later, the researchers found record-high values of PCB in the atmosphere above Svalbard.

“As far as we know, this is the first study that shows a connection between the burning of biomass and PCB concentrations in the atmosphere far away,” said Sabine Eckhardt.

“With a climate that is constantly changing, we expect the extent of such fires to increase.

“In such case, it also means that the fires may represent an increasing environmental problem in the Arctic.

“That in turn will reduce the effect of the international agreements that aim to reduce emissions of these environmental toxins,’ said Ms Eckhardt.

PCB is a group of synthetically-produced persistent toxic compounds., and can be stored in the fatty parts of the organism and accumulates in the food chain.

Humans, fatty fish and carnivores (such as polar bears) can therefore accumulate concentrations in their bodies that are so high that they are poisoned.

As the primary emissions of organic environmental toxins are reduced, the researchers believe that fires caused by climate change will become more important.

They point to the fact that there has been little focus on the significance of burning biomass, and the potential consequences of this for the Arctic environment.

“For the first time, we have proved that burning biomass is also an important source of persistent organic pollutants in polar areas,” Ms Eckhardt observed.

“This can be of great importance to international agreements that aim to protect the environment in Arctic areas.”

Source: The Research Council of Norway

Date: 31/05/2010

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

Wildlife flee Kenyan forest fires


Hundreds of thousands of flamingos and other wildlife are at risk after five forest fires erupted in Kenya on Saturday, say wildlife officials.

The BBC News website reports that police say they suspect some of the still-raging blazes were started by communities to make space for farmland.

The fires have had an adverse effect on the Masai Mara and in Tanzania on the Serengeti national park, officials say.

Other wildlife reserves are under threat, including Lake Nakuru, which is home to almost a million flamingos.

According to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), all the rivers that drain from south-western Kenya’s Mau forest into the lake have dried drastically.

Nearly 60 species of wildlife, including white rhino, depend on the lake.

By Sunday an estimated 200 hectares (500 acres) of woodland had been razed in Mau – East Africa’s largest indigenous forest.

KWS communications manager Paul Udoto told the BBC: “We now have to pump water from underground bore holes to shallow pans to water the animals in the park otherwise they will all die. This is costing us a lot of money.”

Members of communities opposed to government plans to move them out of the Mau forest are suspected, say police, and several people have been arrested, accused of arson.

Another blaze nearby has destroyed about a quarter of the 52 sq km (20 square miles) Mount Longonot National Park, an extinct volcano in Kenya’s Rift Valley, said officials.

Zebras, buffaloes, antelopes, gazelles and giraffes have fled the fires, crossing roads and residential areas to reach safety, said witnesses.

But some wildlife experts said snakes and smaller animals, like rabbits and mongooses, may not have managed to escape.

Kenya is suffering a drought this year that has contributed to hunger the government says is affecting 10 million people.

Source: BBC News website

Date: 23/03/2009

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

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