First we heard that the oceans are no longer sucking up CO2 the way they used to?now it turns out that the FORESTS aren’t either! Plus forest fires, like the recent ones in California, pump tons of carbon dioxide INTO the atmosphere.

In the Nov. 1 edition of the Independent, Steve Connor reports that “the sprawling forests of the northern hemisphere which extend from China and Siberia to Canada and Alaska are in danger of becoming a gigantic source of carbon dioxide rather than being a major ‘sink’ that helps to offset man-made emissions of the greenhouse gas.” Why is this? The risk of fire. Large-scale fires in a western or southeastern state can pump as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in a few weeks as the state’s entire motor vehicle traffic does in a year.

Christine Wiedinmyer of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), along with her colleague Jason Neff, have used satellite observations of recent fires and a computer model designed by Wiedinmyer to estimate the carbon dioxide emissions based on the mass of vegetation burned.

Overall, their study estimates that fires in the contiguous United States and Alaska release about 290 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, which is the equivalent of 4 to 6% of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel burning. But fires contribute a higher proportion of the potent greenhouse gas in several western and southeastern states, especially Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Washington, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Arizona. Particularly large fires can release enormous pulses of carbon dioxide rapidly into the atmosphere.

The researchers say, “A striking implication of very large wildfires is that a severe fire season lasting only one or two months can release as much carbon as the annual emissions from the entire transportation or energy sector of an individual state.” And why have there been so many forest fires in the past few years? The risk of fires in the boreal forests of the north has increased because of climate change, so it?s a self-feeding mechanism.

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