Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Understanding Pyrodiversity

• March 02, 2010 • 5:08 PM

Researchers from Oregon State argue that when it comes to carbon emissions, not all forest fires are created equal.

Ah, climate science. What a messy and divisive subject. And with events like “snowmaggedon” and “climategate” taking the media by storm, there seems to be no shortage of controversy to fuel the fire.

A new study from Oregon State University does just that. Researchers suggest that previous calculations of forest fires’ carbon dioxide contribution grossly overestimate the impact of flaming foliage on the atmosphere.

Previous research on the climatic effects of fires has suggested that forests, though often touted for their carbon-storage abilities, emit a significant amount of greenhouse gases when they go up in flames. And contrary to what Smokey the Bear might have you believe, the issue isn’t if a forest will burn, but when.

David Bowman says that by trying to prevent fire in nature, humans have actually made wildfires that much worse. It’s a vicious cycle: While fires may contribute to climate change, climate change has also affected their behavior, and humans are complicit. Bowman and Jennifer Balch argue in “Deforest Fires Fan Global Warming” that intentionally burning down forests accounts for up to one-fifth of mankind’s carbon dioxide emissions post-Industrial Revolution. And the impact of these fires on the atmosphere ultimately increases the likelihood of unintentional fires, which further add to the problem.

Balch suggests that instead of trying to control fires, we should try to manage the climate change that has made them so unpredictable. Both she and Bowman believe that humans need to accept fire, and the Oregon State findings may make that that much easier.

The OSU scientists conducted their research in the Metolius River Watershed in the central Oregon Cascade Range, where four large fires in 2002-03 consumed about one-third, or 100,000 acres, of the area. Previous studies of the area have estimated that fires took about 30 percent of the mass of living trees, but the OSU team found that only 1 to 3 percent was consumed.

Previous estimates of the atmospheric damage of the B & B Complex fire in 2003 (one of the four Metolius fires) suggested that it released 600 percent more carbon emissions that year than all other energy and fossil fuel sources in the state put together. But the OSU research suggests that all four fires combined produced about 2.5 percent of the annual statewide carbon emissions.

With numbers that vary so widely, it’s easy to wonder if they’re even talking about the same forest.

The OSU research team says there are some serious misconceptions about how much of a forest actually burns during a fire (which is also the focus of much of Balch’s work in the Amazon). Previous estimates of the carbon released during forest fires have been based on Canadian forests, which, they say, are very different from many of the forests in the United States.

Garrett Meigs, a research assistant in the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society at OSU, calls for an appreciation of “pyrodiversity” — the diverse range of effects a fire can have. He says that more studies should take into account the varying responses of forests to fire.

Beverly Law, a professor of forest ecosystems and society at OSU, points out that most of the initial carbon emissions in a fire are from the burning of the tinder on the forest floor or below ground – not from the trees themselves.

Also, the scientists say, even if a severe fire kills almost all the trees in one area, the trees remain standing. They don’t fall, decay and release carbon immediately; the process goes on for decades. And in the meantime, grasses and shrubs pop up quickly, offsetting some of the carbon released by the trees.

Since fire events are episodic and the increase in greenhouse gas emissions is steady, the researchers argue that strategies to mitigate climate change should focus on human-caused emissions, not wildfires. They add that if scientists do want to estimate the carbon impact of fires, they need to take into account burn severity, non-tree responses and belowground processes to be accurate.

Ultimately, they echo Bowman: Although suppressing fires has reduced greenhouse gas emissions in the short term, in the long run, fires are here stay. And reducing human consumption of fossil fuels would be a much more effective way to cut atmospheric carbon emissions than trying to stop forest fires.

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.

Elisabeth Best
Former Miller-McCune Fellow Elisabeth Best is currently pursuing a Masters of Pacific International Affairs at the University of California, San Diego School of International Relations and Pacific Studies, where she is the editor in chief of the Journal of International Policy Solutions. She graduated from UC Santa Barbara in June 2009 with a BA in global studies and a minor in professional editing. As an undergraduate, she wrote for The GW Hatchet and Coastlines magazine and hosted “The Backseat” on WRGW.

More From Elisabeth Best

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

Recent Posts

December 22 • 6:00 AM

Politicians Gonna Politic

Is there something to the idea that a politician who no longer faces re-election is free to pursue new policy solutions without needing to kowtow to special interests?


December 22 • 4:00 AM

Keep That E-Reader Out of Bed and You’ll Feel Better in the Morning

New research finds e-readers, like other light-emitting electronic devices, can disrupt normal sleep patterns.


December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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