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

Tree-killing hurricanes ‘could contribute to global warming’


A first-of-its kind, long-term study of hurricane impact on US trees shows that hurricane damage can diminish a forest’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, Science Daily reports.

Tulane University researchers examined the impact of tropical cyclones on US forests between 1851 to 2000 and found that changes in hurricane frequency might contribute to global warming.

The results are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Trees absorb carbon dioxide as they grow, and release it when they die – either from old age or from trauma, such as hurricanes.

The annual amount of carbon dioxide a forest removes from the atmosphere is determined by the ratio of tree growth to tree mortality each year.

When trees are destroyed en masse by hurricanes, not only will there be fewer trees in the forest to absorb greenhouse gases, but forests could eventually become emitters of carbon dioxide, warming the climate.

Other studies, notes Tulane ecologist Jeff Chambers, indicate that hurricanes could intensify with a warming climate.

“If landfalling hurricanes become more intense or more frequent in the future, tree mortality and damage exceeding 50 million tonnes of tree biomass per year would result in a net carbon loss from US forest ecosystems,” says Dr Chambers.

The study, which was led by Tulane postdoctoral research associate Hongcheng Zeng, establishes an important baseline to evaluate changes in the frequency and intensity of future landfalling hurricanes.

Using field measurements, satellite image analyses, and empirical models to evaluate forest and carbon cycle impacts, the researchers established that an average of 97 million trees have been affected each year for the past 150 years over the entire United States, resulting in a 53-million ton annual biomass loss and an average carbon release of 25 million tons.

Forest impacts were primarily located in Gulf Coast areas, particularly southern Texas and Louisiana and south Florida, while significant impacts also occurred in eastern North Carolina.

Chambers compares the data from this study to a 2007 study that showed that a single storm – Hurricane Katrina – destroyed nearly 320 million trees with a total biomass loss equivalent to 50–140% of the net annual US carbon sink in forest trees.

“The bottom line,” observes Dr Chambers, “is that any sustained increase in hurricane tree biomass loss above 50 million tons would potentially undermine our efforts to reduce human fossil fuel carbon emissions.”

Study contributors include Tulane lab researchers Robinson Negrón-Juárez and David Baker; George Hurtt of the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space at the University of New Hampshire; and Mark Powell at the Hurricane Research Division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Source: Science Daily

Date: 10/05/2009

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

Welsh woodlands to fight climate change


Climate change experts from across Europe will be seeing how the Welsh woodlands are already helping to alleviate the effects of climate change, says a press release from the UK Forestry Commission.

Researchers in Wales are putting in place exciting new ways in which the forests can help prevent flooding as well as locking away millions of tons of carbon dioxide.

Leading members of the new FUTUREforest project will be taken on a fact-finding tour of south Wales on 26-27 March, 2009.

The mission is part of the project’s remit to share experiences and new methods of environmental management to prepare the forests of Europe for climate change.

Specialists from the other six partner regions – Auvergne, France (biodiversity); Brandenburg, Germany (knowledge transfer); Bulgaria (soil protection); Catalonia (natural risks); Latvia (timber production); Slovakia (carbon sequestration) will see some of the effects of climate change on Welsh forests – and some of the solutions in and around Abergavenny.

They will see how woody debris dams, new woodland creation and other flood risk management techniques in the uplands can help to prevent the kind of flooding that has caused millions of pounds worth of damage across Wales.

The 30 strong delegation will be staying at The Hill Education & Conference Centre, Abergavenny, and visiting Forestry Commission Wales woodland sites at Mynydd Du, Usk College and the Woodland Trust’s Great Triley Wood.

“We have already begun to discover much about the way the woodlands of Europe can help us to combat climate change,” said Mike Over, Project Manager of the FUTUREforest project in Wales.

“We hope that experts from our partner regions discover that in Wales we have made some really exciting new discoveries that can help them back in their own countries.”

Source: Forestry Commission press release

Date: 19/03/2009

Ranching ‘biggest driver of deforestation’ in Brazil


Cattle ranching is the biggest driver of deforestation in Brazil, says Greenpeace.

In evidence presented at the World Social Forum, hosted by Belem in the heart of the Amazon, the environmental group said it showed that cattle ranching was the biggest driver of Amazon deforestation.

Greenpeace Brazil has produced a series of maps which it said showed the links between cattle ranching and tree felling in the highest resolution to date.

The details have been released as part of the organisation’s Save the Planet – Now tour.

Greenpeace lists the South America nation as the world’s fourth biggest polluter, with 75% of its emissions stemming from deforestation.

The Brazilian government has pledged to tackle destruction of the Amazon as part of its climate commitments. However, green campaigners say plans to expand its cattle industry contradict these.

Internationally, tropical deforestation is responsible for a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions, more than the global transport sector.

Source: Greenpeace International

Date: 29/01/2009

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

%d bloggers like this: