text-only page produced automatically by LIFT Text Transcoder Skip all navigation and go to page contentSkip top navigation and go to directorate navigationSkip top navigation and go to page navigation
National Science Foundation
News
design element
News
News From the Field
For the News Media
Special Reports
Research Overviews
NSF-Wide Investments
Speeches & Lectures
NSF Current Newsletter
Multimedia Gallery
News Archive
News by Research Area
Arctic & Antarctic
Astronomy & Space
Biology
Chemistry & Materials
Computing
Earth & Environment
Education
Engineering
Mathematics
Nanoscience
People & Society
Physics
 

Email this pagePrint this page


Press Release 09-081
Fire Is an Important and Under-Appreciated Part of Global Climate Change

Study identifies significant contributions of fire to climate change and identifies feedbacks between fire and climate change

Satellite image of smoke from Southern California wildfires billowing over the Pacific Ocean.

Smoke from Southern California wildfires billows over the Pacific Ocean.
Credit and Larger Version

April 23, 2009

Listen to a teleconference with three experts on fire and Earth systems.

Fire must be accounted for as an integral part of climate change, according to 22 authors of an article published in the April 24 issue of the journal Science. The authors determined that intentional deforestation fires alone contribute up to one-fifth of the human-caused increase in emissions of carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas that increases global temperature.

The work is the culmination of a meeting supported by the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics (KITP) and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), both based at the University of California, Santa Barbara and funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The authors call on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to fully integrate fire into their assessments of global climate change, and consider fire-climate feedbacks, which have been largely absent in global models.

The article ties together various threads of knowledge about fire, which have, until now, remained isolated in disparate fields including ecology, global modeling, physics, anthropology and climatology.

Increasing numbers of wildfires are influencing climate as well, the authors report. "The tragic fires in Victoria, Australia, emphasize the ubiquity of recent large wildfires and potentially changing fire regimes that are concomitant with anthropogenic climate change," said David Bowman of the University of Tasmania. "Our review is both timely and of great relevance globally."

Carbon dioxide is the most important and well-studied greenhouse gas that is emitted by burning plants. However, methane, aerosol particulates in smoke, and the changing reflectance of a charred landscape each contribute to changes in the atmosphere caused by fire. Consequences of large fires have huge economic, environmental, and health costs, report the authors.

The authors state, "Earth is intrinsically a flammable planet due to its cover of carbon-rich vegetation, seasonally dry climates, atmospheric oxygen, widespread lightning and volcano ignitions. Yet, despite the human species' long-held appreciation of this flammability, the global scope of fire has been revealed only recently by satellite observations available beginning in the 1980s."

They note, however, that satellites cannot adequately capture fire activity in ecosystems with very long fire intervals, or those with highly variable fire activity.

Jennifer Balch, a member of the research team and a postdoctoral fellow at NCEAS, explains that there are bigger and more frequent fires from the western U.S. to the tropics. There are "fires where we don't normally see fires," she said, noting that it is in the humid tropics that a lot of deforestation fires are occurring, usually to expand agriculture or cattle ranching. "Wet rainforests have not historically experienced fires at the frequency that they are today. During extreme droughts, such as in 97-98, Amazon wildfires burned through 39,000 square kilometers of forest."

Balch explains the importance of the article: "This synthesis is a prerequisite for adaptation to the apparent recent intensification of fire feedbacks, which have been exacerbated by climate change, rapid land cover transformation, and exotic species introductions--that collectively challenge the integrity of entire biomes."

The authors acknowledge that their estimate of fire's influence on climate is just a start, and they highlight major research gaps that must be addressed in order to understand the complete contribution of fire to the climate system.

Balch notes that a holistic fire science is necessary, and points out fire's true importance. "We don't think about fires correctly," she said. "Fire is as elemental as air or water. We live on a fire planet. We are a fire species. Yet, the study of fire has been very fragmented. We know lots about the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, but we know very little about the fire cycle, or how fire cycles through the biosphere."

"The large and diverse group of authors on this paper typifies an increasing trend across many sciences," said Henry Gholz, an NSF program director. "NSF explicitly supports this by funding "synthesis centers," such as NCEAS and KITP. Instead of focusing on generating new data, these centers synthesize the results of literally thousands of completed research projects into new results, theories and insights. The conclusions of this paper--that fire is important to the global carbon cycle and global climate, and that our ignorance about fire at this scale is vast--and could not have otherwise been obtained."

-NSF-

Media Contacts
Lily Whiteman, National Science Foundation, (703) 292-8310, lwhitema@nsf.gov
Mari Jensen, University of Arizona, (520) 626-9635, mnjensen@email.arizona.edu
Gail Gallessich, University of California, Santa Barbara, (805) 893-7220, gail.g@ia.ucsb.edu

Program Contacts
Henry Gholz, National Science Foundation, (703) 292-8310, gholz@nsf.gov

Principal Investigators
David Bowman, Univrsity of Tasmania, 61-3-6226-1943, david.bowman@utas.edu.au
Jennifer Balch, NCEAS, University of California, Santa Barbara, (805) 892-2522, balch@nceas.ucsb.edu

Co-Investigators
Thomas Swetnam, University of Arizona, (520) 621-2112, tswetnam@ltrr.arizona.edu

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2014, its budget is $7.2 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 50,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 11,500 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $593 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

 Get News Updates by Email 

Useful NSF Web Sites:
NSF Home Page: http://www.nsf.gov
NSF News: http://www.nsf.gov/news/
For the News Media: http://www.nsf.gov/news/newsroom.jsp
Science and Engineering Statistics: http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/
Awards Searches: http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/

 

Audio only
Play Audio
Teleconference on fire and Earth systems with three fire experts.
Credit and Larger Version

Cover of April 24, 2009 issue of Science
The researchers' findings appear in the April 24, 2009, issue of Science.
Credit and Larger Version

Photo of a pine forest in Siberia burning.
A pine forest in Siberia burns.
Credit and Larger Version

Photo of a wildfire that burned 28,000 acres of Arizona forest and killed six firefighters.
This wildfire burned 28,000 acres of Arizona forest and killed six firefighters.
Credit and Larger Version

Photo of researchers David Bowman and Jennifer Blach.
Researchers David Bowman and Jennifer Balch.
Credit and Larger Version



Email this pagePrint this page
Back to Top of page