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Stopping Wildfires May Be Key to Slowing Climate Change – Newsweek

Wildfires are often viewed as a result of climate change and global warming, but experts are learning they contribute to climate change as well.

Wildfires made headlines this summer as drought exacerbated fires ravaging California. Less relief efforts are directed toward fires incinerating remote areas, like in Alaska’s boreal forests, since human lives and property aren’t at risk. However, a new report by Scientific American found that extinguishing some remote fires could drastically lower the United States’ carbon emissions and help combat climate change.

The report found that 3.1 million acres of Alaska have been charred by wildfires, accounting for more than half of the 5.7 million acres burned this year in the United States. Within those acres, wildfires incinerated boreal forests, which have high concentrations of carbon in the trees and soil. The fires pump high emissions of carbon pollution into the atmosphere, equivalent to driving 32 million gas-powered cars over the course of one year. Alaska alone accounts for half of the United States’ fire emissions of carbon dioxide, largely because of the burning boreal forests.

University of Oregon Professor Emeritus Bart Johnson said wildfires, specifically those incinerating boreal forest, create an amplifying feedback loop. Climate change increases the frequency and severity of wildfires as temperatures increase and drought takes effect. Wildfires then feed global warming by releasing carbon into the atmosphere.

“It’s really important to reduce the spread of some really large wildfires outside the historical range of variability,” Johnson told Newsweek, specifying that suppressing all wildfires isn’t a solution either.

Aerial View of Burnt Trees in Canada
Dead trees are seen in this aerial view on April 17, 2017, near Fort McMurray, Canada, one year after a large wildfire. In the U.S., Alaska alone accounts for half of the country’s fire emissions of carbon dioxide, largely because of wildfires in boreal forests.
ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

Instead, it’s a fine balance between preventing large amounts of carbon emissions from out-of-control fires and still allowing for the positive effects gleaned from wildfires.

The Scientific American research doesn’t suggest extinguishing boreal forest fires completely, rather managing them at pre-climate change levels. Management isn’t a cheap solution, accounting to an annual investment of $700 million through 2030. Scientific American‘s proposal is five times what is currently invested into Alaskan fire management.

“Funding would support additional personnel and more airplanes, drones and other technical resources to monitor and put out these fires while they are still small. That is a sizable budget increase, for sure,” the study said.

Boreal forests have relied on wildfires for thousands of years, and only recently those wildfires have grown out of control as climate change increases their frequency and severity.

“Fires in the boreal are very normal and very natural. They have been a part of that system for the past 5,000 years,” University of Guelph associate professor Catherine Dieleman told Newsweek. “There’s a really important relationship between fire and the vegetation.”

On average, boreal fires return every 100 years, and organisms like black spruce have learned to depend on that cycle. However, Dieleman, an expert in boreal forest ecology, said that relationship is changing as wildfires occur in more frequent intervals due to warmer weather, extreme drought and an increase in lightning strikes.

“That’s where we start to have this problem between climate change and wildfires,” she said.

The study encouraged the United States to partner with Canada and Russia on how to limit carbon emissions from boreal forest fires, and to take responsibility in all aspects of climate change.

“We cannot stop global warming without dramatically reducing and ultimately eliminating fossil fuel emissions,” the Scientific American report said. “But we also must keep boreal wildfire emissions in check. We ignore these wildfires and their accelerating climate impacts at our peril.”

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