The Hot Zone

Fuel to the Fire

Posted by Alison Hawkes on February 24, 2010
Category : Climate Science and Scientists

By Alison Hawkes

What’s adding fuel to the fire of climate change? Well, fire.

Some stunning images recently taken by NASA’s Aqua satellite show one of the Earth’s latest firestorms – this one at the Dundes Nature Reserve in Western Australia. Nearly 200,000 acres have gone up in flames as of February 18. That’s a lot of carbon added to the atmosphere.

The red outlines are the active fires, and the smoky clouds are – of course – smoke.

Dundes Natural Reserve, Australia, Feb. 9, 2010

Dundes comes on the heals of the one year anniversary of “Black Saturday,” for Melbourne the natural disaster equivalent to San Francisco’s 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The fire energy that ripped through communities near Melborne killing 173 people was the equivalent of 1500 Hiroshima bombs, the Sydney Morning Herald reported. Pretty intense.

The American West has been cindered, too, of late. California lost nearly 340,000 acres of land, as firefighters fought 65 separate fires in a time span of July to October. The worst was Station Fire, outside Pasadena, which charred 250 square miles in September.

This image from NASA’s Terra satellite appears black (false-color), while vegetation is dark red.

San Gabriel Mountain fires, Sept. 6, 2009

Fires are a normal and healthy part of the natural cycle, which can make them difficult to pin directly to climate change. But the severity of fires and duration of fire seasons seem to be on the rise, owning to a drier, warmer climate in some parts of the world.

A 2006 study, Warmer and Earlier Spring Increase Western U.S. Forest Wildfire Activity, published in the journal Science compared large fires since 1970 with hydroclimatic and land-surface data. Researchers reported that the length of wildfire season had increased by 64% (or 78 days), and wildfire frequency jumped particularly high in the Northern Rockies (60%). Earlier snow melt and higher temperatures were correlated with more frequent fires, the data showed.

So bigger fires seem to be triggered by changing climate conditions. It’s no small jump to suppose that they could also exacerbate these conditions. Between 20 to 40 percent of total U.S. carbon sequestration is held by forests.

Just as there seems to be a feedback loop between fires and climate change, there’s a reverse one forming with public sentiment. All the fires in Australia are turning a previously skeptical anti-Kyoto populace into climate change worriers. In a September survey by Newspoll, 72% of the Australian respondents were in favor of a carbon reduction program. And Australia recently reaffirmed its commitment to meeting Copenhagen goals of reducing carbon by 5 to 25% of 2000 levels within the next decade. This from the world’s largest coal exporter.

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