Menus Subscribe Search

‘Deforest Fires’ Fan Global Warming

• April 23, 2009 • 7:06 PM

Deforestation has long been associated with global warming, but a new paper suggests the method of deforesting — intentionally burning — may be a terrifically potent climate changer, too.

Fire looks to be one big contributor to global warming — not directly through its heat, although in some barely discernable way that certainly adds to warmth, but by what it does to the planet’s landscape.

A new study that appeared in the April 24 edition of the magazine Science suggests that as much a fifth of mankind’s carbon dioxide emissions in the industrial era can be traced to intentionally burning down forests. That doesn’t include burning firewood to heat your hut, and it doesn’t count wildfires (even those from arson or controlled burns gone awry).

And those intentional fires help create the feedback loop that fosters unintentional fires like the wildfires that char Australia or the Western U.S. each summer. Beyond the release of carbon dioxide, “landscape fires” of all stripes incinerate carbon-storing plants and pump sunshine-absorbing soot into the global atmosphere.

And so the vicious circle is described thusly: “These deforestation-related fires contribute substantially to the global burden of greenhouse gases, and the associated global warming that they will cause is projected to increase extreme fire weather, leading to further spikes of carbon emissions.”

Despite this, fire really hasn’t factored into comprehensive examinations of climate change, argue the authors of the Science paper — led by David Bowman of the University of Tasmania and Jennifer Balch of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“Progress in understanding fire on Earth has been hampered by cultural aversions to accepting fire as a fundamental global feature and disciplinary parochialism,” they write in calling for a more sophisticated understanding, both technologically and psychologically, of fire’s role in climate change. “… Such an integrated perspective is necessary and timely, given that a diversity of fragmented research programs have identified the pervasive influences of fire on the Earth system.”

“It’s not new information,” Balch said of the paper itself, “but it’s been fragmented. What we’ve done is pull all these threads together to state the obvious.”

Shadow Life Form
A conversation with Bowman suggests the ambitions of the paper — “Fire in the Earth System” — barely fit its four pages of narrative. The work of 22 authors, ranging from physicists, epidemiologists and ecologists to cultural historians, the paper aims to push beyond the “fire community” to present landscape fire into a central  position in the earth sciences — “it demands that we think about its history.”

The phenomenal output of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide that the paper traces to intentional burning is the hook, Bowman stated bluntly, but the overriding message is that fire has been a “shadow life form” on Earth that predates civilization by 420 million years — when the first plants started popping up on land.

Fire, he said, has been a potent force for evolution ever since. “I like to say ‘fire is the one Darwin dropped,’” Bowman said, reflecting on the naturalist’s visit to fire-configured island of Tasmania on the same trip that landed him on the Galapagos. “He saw everything he needed to see, but he didn’t get it.”

While the ecological landscape in Hobart in Tasmania actually requires routine visits by fire to thrive, the paper suggests the Earth itself evolved in part by growing up alongside fire. “Earth is an intrinsically flammable planet owing to its cover of carbon-rich vegetation, seasonally dry climates, atmospheric oxygen, and widespread lightning and volcano ignitions,” it reads.

As Balch said, “Earth is a fire planet. Fire is what happens when you have carbon burn, an ignition source, and a hot and dry climate. And we are a fire species. But part of what is tricky for people is that we use fire very imperfectly — we don’t control it.”

And so that’s why fire has such a major influence now on accelerating climate change: Humans have unleashed what they thought was something tamed only to discover it remained feral.

Fire has been part of the human toolkit for between 50,000 and 100,000 years, with reliable evidence of at least occasional human use going back hundreds of thousands of years earlier. Once hunter-gathers with fire became agriculturalists with fire, the record shows they started using fire to shape their surroundings, through slash-and-burn efforts, to manage wildlife or to permanently take land from the forests for cities and fields.

“Assuming that deforestation and fire are synonymous — and we do — fire is the cheapest and easiest way to replace forest with pasture or crop land,” said Balch. Those fires produce greenhouse gases and put soot in the atmosphere, but in some cases they also change the land’s reflectiveness — its albedo — from dark forest to brighter snowfields or pastures. In addition, inefficient burning often left lots of carbon still rooted, often literally, in the ground. Some estimates even see the cooling from albedo canceling out the heating from soot in the air.

That canceling out is taken as a given in naturally occurring wildfires, Balch said of the paper’s estimates. “We assume that all other types of fires are in equilibrium. That’s why we focus on deforestation fires, because they are outside the norm.”

The Hard Part
There was also a practical reason to focus on deforestation fires, Bowman said. It was something that could be figured out, even if the effort might prove tortuous. Describing the meeting on fire where the Science paper was born, the idea arose to calculate the contribution fire might be making to the warming of the atmosphere.

Such a calculation, with a billion or so cook fires every night, wildfires, deforestation fires and others in the mix, “would be devilishly complicated for a climate model,” Bowman recalled the thinking. “That’s going to be really, really hard. Maybe we just use deforestation fire.” He summed up the consensus. “Intentional deforestation fire – that is something we do know, a clearly described domain, with an historical certainty and an historical precedent.”

The starting point for the data gathering was the Industrial Revolution, circa 1750, which is also the starting point for many other examinations of greenhouse gases and climate change.

As it stands, the authors estimate that all sources of fire, from hut warming to ginormous peat fires in Indonesia, emit an amount of carbon dioxide equal to half that from the burning fossil fuels, the traditional villain in climate change scenarios.

But lots of unknowns and perhaps unknowables remain, and the authors acknowledge that this paper is but a first stab at the issue, “a first estimate, a crucial step in quantifying and recognizing the issue,” Balch said. “What we are calling for is a complete treatment of fire in the next generation of climate models and an acknowledgement that fire is, and has been, an important actor for a very long time.”

“We all know that climate affects fire,” said Bowman, “but we’re only now realizing that fire affects climate. Fires are blindingly obvious, but their effects on the Earth’s systems (are) deeply subtle, and humans have the interesting possibility that they’re part of the feedback.

“That’s the scary bit, that if we serio
usly disturb that equilibrium … then we have the capacity for feedback. And that plays into the climate projections that we’re using, that we’re debating right now, may, sadly, be an underestimate.”

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Add our news to your site.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 22 • 10:00 AM

Turbo Paul: Art Thief Turned Art Crime Ombudsman

There’s art theft, there’s law enforcement, and, somewhere in between, there’s Turbo Paul.


August 22 • 8:00 AM

When Climate Change Denial Refutes Itself

The world is warming—and record-cold winters are just another symptom.


August 22 • 6:17 AM

The Impossibility of the Night Shift

Many night workers get “shift-work sleep disorder.” And no one knows how to treat it.


August 22 • 6:00 AM

Long Live Short Novels

Christopher Beha’s Arts & Entertainments comes in at less than 300 pages long, which—along with a plot centered on a sex-tape scandal—makes it a uniquely efficient pleasure.


August 22 • 4:00 AM

Why ‘Nature Versus Nurture’ Often Doesn’t Matter

Sometimes it just doesn’t make any sense to try to separate the social and the biological.


August 21 • 4:00 PM

Julie Chen Explains Why She Underwent Westernizing Surgery

The CBS news anchor and television personality’s story proves that cosmetic surgeries aren’t always vanity projects, even if they’re usually portrayed that way.


August 21 • 2:37 PM

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There’s heightened functional connectivity between the brain’s emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.


August 21 • 2:00 PM

Cracking Down on the Use of Restraints in Schools

Federal investigators found that children at two Virginia schools were being regularly pinned down or isolated and that their education was suffering as a result.


August 21 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, School Principal?

Noah Davis talks to Evan Glazer about why kids aren’t getting smarter and what his school’s doing in order to change that.



August 21 • 10:00 AM

Why My Neighbors Still Use Dial-Up Internet

It’s not because they want to. It’s because they have no other choice.


August 21 • 8:15 AM

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.


August 21 • 8:00 AM

To Fight the Obesity Epidemic Americans Will Have to First Recognize That They’re Obese

There is a void in the medical community’s understanding of how families see themselves and understand their weight.


August 21 • 6:33 AM

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.


August 21 • 6:00 AM

The Fox News Effect

Whatever you think of its approach, Fox News has created a more conservative Congress and a more polarized electorate, according to a series of recent studies.


August 21 • 4:00 AM

Do Children Help Care for the Family Pet?

Or does mom do it all?


August 20 • 4:00 PM

Why Can’t Conservatives See the Benefits of Affordable Child Care?

Private programs might do a better job of watching our kids than state-run programs, but they’re not accessible to everyone.


August 20 • 2:00 PM

Oil and Gas Companies Are Illegally Using Diesel Fuel in Hundreds of Fracking Operations

An analysis by an environmental group finds hundreds of cases in which drillers used diesel fuel without obtaining permits and sometimes altered records disclosing they had done so.


August 20 • 12:00 PM

The Mystery of Britain’s Alien Big Cats

In a nation where the biggest carnivorous predator is a badger, why are there so many reported sightings of large cats?


August 20 • 10:00 AM

Death Row in Arizona: Where Human Experimentation Is the Rule, Not the Exception

Recent reports show that chemical roulette is the state’s M.O.


August 20 • 9:51 AM

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.


August 20 • 8:40 AM

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.


August 20 • 8:00 AM

What the Cost of Raising a Child in America Tells Us About Income Inequality

You’ll spend nearly a quarter of a million dollars to raise a kid in the United States, or about five times the annual median income.


August 20 • 6:00 AM

In Praise of ‘American Greed’

While it remains semi-hidden on CNBC and can’t claim the car chases of Cops, American Greed—now with eight seasons in the books—has proven itself a worthy endeavor.


August 20 • 4:00 AM

Of Course I Behaved Like a Jerk, I Was Just Watching ‘Jersey Shore’

Researchers find watching certain types of reality TV can make viewers more aggressive.


Follow us


The Impossibility of the Night Shift

Many night workers get “shift-work sleep disorder.” And no one knows how to treat it.

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There's heightened functional connectivity between the brain's emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.