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Burn, burn, burn

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No place for a hike, the smoldering Kenai Peninsula in August/Craig Medred

A long way from a record, the Alaska fire season is winding down at last with the long-term consequences far from clear.

The good news is no one died, although a number of firefighters suffered burns after falling into ash pits while battling the Swan Lake and McKinley fires in the Southcentral part of the state, according to state Division of Forestry spokesman Tim Mowry.

The latter fire also claimed 52 homes, three businesses and 84 outbuildings, according to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. Meanwhile, the state’s largest city – caught between the Swan Lake fire to the south and the McKinley fire to the north – repeatedly suffered some of the worst air quality in the country. 

Alaska in flames attracted plenty of media attention, too.

“‘Unprecedented’ wildfires ravage the Arctic,” CNN reported in June above a story reporting that “the fires themselves contribute to the climate crisis by releasing carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere.”

Only it’s not that simple, according to a variety of scientists, who contend fire history is regularly distorted by those who want to believe it another global warming/climate change disaster.

Wildfires, they point out, have long been a norm and apparently more so in the past than today.

Douglas Hamilton at Leeds University in the United Kingdom (UK) and others who took a long look at the history of fire in the geologic and historic records concluded, “fire occurrence increased to a peak around 1850…before declining to present-day levels. Paleoenvironmental archives therefore suggest that preindustrial fire activity was similar to present-day activity, if not higher. This runs contrary to existing ideas about the pristine nature of the Earth system in the preindustrial (period).”

His group’s peer-reviewed study on the subject was published in Nature Communications in August 2018.

“Fire is an essential component of the ecosystem and life has grown with it being present and thus incorporated it within its cycles,” Hamilton said in an email.

Despite a lot of hype about wildfires adding to CO2 in the atmosphere, they do not appear to play a major role in the build up the main greenhouse gas that keeps solar energy striking the earth from bouncing back into space as soon as the sun sets.

The Leeds study tracked fire history by looking for “black carbon,” ie. soot, in ice cores from glaciers to try to get a handle on past fires to determine the role of today’s fires in future global warming. When soot drifts into and deposits on areas normally covered with snow and ice, they began to absorb sunlight and store heat rather than immediately reflecting the solar energy back toward space.

Hamilton’s “reassessment of pre-industrial fire emissions” concluded current models for future climate over-estimate the effect of black carbon by ignoring its history. The study follows on another, which Hamilton pointed out, that concluded historical wildfire trends have also been widely miscalculated.

That study by Stefan H. Doeer and Cristina Santín at the United Kingdom’s Swansea University is titled “Global trends in wildfire and its impacts: perceptions versus realities in a changing world.” It was peer-reviewed and published by Royal Society Publishing – Biological Sciences in 2016.

“Human societies have coexisted with fire since their emergence,” Doeer and Santín wrote. “Yet many consider wildfire as an accelerating problem, with widely held perceptions both in the media and scientific papers of increasing fire occurrence, severity and resulting losses. However, important exceptions aside, the quantitative evidence available does not support these perceived overall trends. Instead, global area burned appears to have overall declined over past decades, and there is increasing evidence that there is less fire in the global landscape today than centuries ago.”

The misperceptions were broadly evident in Alaska this year.

Hyping

The state was widely reported to be struggling with one of its “worst wildfire seasons” as parts of Alaska suffered through a drought and the warmest summer on record.

“For residents of Anchorage, July’s wildfire and unprecedented temperatures plus the current McKinley Fire confirm that global heating has changed life forever,” The Guardian proclaimed. 

Wildfires are a growing concern around the country. According to the latest National Climate Assessment, hotter, drier conditions over the past two decades have led to more area being burned across the U.S.”

The latter claim may be true of some parts of the U.S. in the past two decades, but the state forestry data indicates it is not the case in Alaska. It’s also a statement with which Doeer and Santín specifically took issue only three years ago, observing that “for the western USA, (records) indicate little change overall, and also that area burned at high severity has overall declined compared to pre-European settlement.”

The researchers noted societal views on fires in the Western world have been distorted since the “German forestry school of the nineteenth century” tried to eliminate wildfires as a waste of timber resources.

“Regarding social perceptions, it is important to stress that, in many of these regions, intentional burning had been used for a very long period both by native people and settlers,” they wrote. “Thus, in rural areas fire was understood as part of the landscape management culture. However, the current general public perception is predominantly different. Until very recently, governments refused to present fire as a potential positive ecological factor out of concern that any admission of a positive role for fire would sound contradictory. Smokey Bear in the USA is the best, but not the only, example of effective public awareness campaigns supporting 100 percent fire suppression.”

The Swansea researchers took to task both journalists and scientists, such as those this summer pushing the idea Alaska wildfires were somehow unique in state history because of drought in places.

“Numerous reports, ranging from popular media through to peer-reviewed scientific literature, have led to a common perception that fires have increased or worsened in recent years around the world,” Doeer and Santín wrote. “Where these reports are accompanied by quantitative observations, they are often based on short timescales and regional data for fire incidence or area burned, which do not necessarily reflect broader temporal or spatial realities.”

Mowry said Monday that just under 2.6 million acres of Alaska appear to have burned this year, “so we’re not anywhere near a record (almost 6.6 million in 2004).”

The 2019 number is about 600,000 acres less than burned in 1990 when the Alaska Division of Forestry started putting its fire reports online. This year’s toll is near double the 30-year average of 1.4 million acres, but it is within the middle of the range of fires in the three fire decades since 1990.

More significantly, the 2019 fire season is bringing to an end a decade in which the number of acres burned trails the 2000s by more than 5.5 million acres, according to the state data,

Decade-long or longer snapshots provide a more accurate picture of what is going on in any ecosystem than do annual snapshots.  The latter are part of that “short timescale” problem referenced by Doerr and Santin.

An average of about 1-million-acres per year burned in Alaska in the ’90s within a range of 44,000 acres in 1995 to the 3.2 million acres in 1990, according to state records. The average in the first decades of the 2000s, however, mushroomed to 1.9 million acres as the years yo-yoed through time with a low of 104,000 acres burned in 2008 and the Alaska record burn of 6.6 million acres in 2004.

This decade looks as if it will slot in closer to 1990 than 2000 with an average burn of 1.3 million acres per year from a range of 234,000 acres in 2014 to 5.1 million in 2015.

Fire is a natural part of many of the state’s ecosystems and at least one of the most notable fires of ’19 – the 158,000-acre Swan Lake fire – blew up on the Kenai Peninsula where there has been considerable past fire suppression and in an area where a big fire has long been feared.

Almost two decades ago, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge began warning of “fire hazards presented by large acreages of dead timber” in the area north of the Sterling Highway from Swan Lake west into the Kenai lowlands.

Carbon dioxide

If this history of fire in Alaska is complicated, the relationship between wildfires and carbon dioxide (CO2) is only more so.

While trees are in flames they add CO2 to the atmosphere. There is no doubt about that given that COand water are the main byproducts of all woodfires.

But new, fast-growing vegetation sucks more COout of the atmosphere than mature vegetation, and some trees are better at storing COthan others. A study at Arizona State University found a large difference between deciduous trees which removed an average  80 kilograms (176 pounds) of carbon per year and coniferous trees, which removed only 41 pounds per year.”

There has been considerable speculation as to what happens to Alaska forests as the climate warms and the state continues to burns. Some scientists suggest a shift from highly flammable spruce trees to less flammable birch, popular and aspen trees, although scientists working in the field say they have observed no signs of that as of yet.

When researchers from the National Park Service and the University of Alaska Fairbanks went looking for these changes, about all they found was a general increase in tree growth apparently tied to warming.

“Our results confirmed expected increases in broadleaved species occupancy and abundance in the warmer, more fire‐affected study region along with considerably higher tree occupancy and abundance in high elevation areas there,” they reported in the peer-reviewed Ecological Monographs in May. “However, contrary to our predictions, we found no evidence of expected reductions in conifer occupancy or increases in non‐fire related tree mortality. Instead, both individual and combined tree species occupancy, density, abundance, and richness were considerably higher in the warmer, more fire‐influenced region, except in the warmest, driest areas (steep and south‐facing slopes at low elevation).”

And then there is the little matter of fire-driven carbon storage.

A study published in Nature Geoscience just last month concluded wildfires “convert a significant fraction of the burned vegetation biomass into pyrogenic carbon (ie., charcoal). Pyrogenic carbon can be stored in terrestrial and marine pools for centuries to millennia and therefore its production can be considered a mechanism for long-term carbon sequestration.”

 “CO2 emitted during fires is normally sequestered again as vegetation regrows, and researchers generally consider wildfires to be carbon neutral events once full biomass recovery has occurred,” lead author Matthew Jones from the University of East Anglia in the UK told Science Daily.

“However, in a fire some of the vegetation is not consumed by burning, but instead transformed to charcoal. This carbon-rich material can be stored in soils and oceans over very long time periods.”

Jones and his colleagues concluded that over the long term fires are more of a carbon sink than the carbon source they were made out to be while Alaska was burning this year.

Jones classified the results of the study as “some good news,” saying the pyrogenic carbon is expected “to be trapped for a period of centuries to millennia, and although it will eventually return to the atmosphere as charcoal degrades, it is locked away and unable to affect our climate in the meantime.”

If you accept the global warming hypothesis – and there is no reason not to – that the steady increase in atmospheric CO2 since the start of the Industrial Age is tied to humans pulling increasingly large volumes of buried carbon out of the ground in the form of coal and oil; burning it; and in the process releasing large volumes of COinto the atmosphere, the idea that forests fires are generally carbon neutral only seems logical.

Lightning sparked fires have been common to many ecosystems for ages. Were they a large, net contributoe to atmospheric CO2, it would have been expected to spike upward before the Industrial Revolution, especially if one accepts the conclusion of Hamilton and colleagues who say the black-carbon record shows there were as many fires, or more, then as now.

But as with many things climate related, it’s complicated. Fire is simpler. If there are stockpiled forest fuels and tinder, as was the case on the Kenai, and lightning strikes, a fire will erupt. What happens after that depends on wind, weather, fire-fighting resources and management decisions.

Large parts of Alaska wilderness are considered “let-burn” areas where ecologists recognize the regenerative power of fires no matter how it might be portrayed as a new global-warming threat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

22 replies »

  1. To be fair, there were no legitimate Palin divorce rumors. Her kids are surprised. In a super mom podcast a couple months ago, Bristol said she left her emotionally abusive husband to ensure her kids have the happy childhood she did and she has always been most grateful through so much media abuse that her parents are so protective and provided the best foundation and home for her and her siblings. Her words.

  2. Insanity:
    “NBC News is asking Americans to confess their climate change sins, though at least some people have taken the opportunity to troll the news company.

    “Even those who care deeply about the planet’s future can slip up now and then. Tell us: Where do you fall short in preventing climate change?” reads the introduction to NBC’s “Climate Confessions” project.

    • i thought at first you were joking. has anyone answered:

      “I can’t stop shopping at Amazon.com?’ or “I keep my house and yard lit up like a prison because I’m afraid of prowlers armed with assault rifles?’ or “I fly all over the world to attend climate change rallies?”

      • Craig,
        You are getting closer to the source as Capitalism is the cause of much emissions, yet you continue to omit the Number 1 cause of all greenhouse gases throughout the world….Military Operations.
        “Global military spending amounted to 1.74 trillion US dollars in 2017, equivalent to 230 US dollars for every person on earth – and almost double what it was at the end of the Cold War.
        The close links between capitalism and militarism can be seen in the operations of the US military…
        Deploying most military assets today requires huge emissions of greenhouse gases, which means the Pentagon is the single largest organisational user of petroleum.
        The truth is that we have normalised state violence.
        We no longer see the CCTV cameras on our streets, the barbed wire fences on our borders, the armour on the police, the refugees in camps because they are no longer unusual.
        This normalisation means that there is a growing danger security solutions to climate change will not just be the default response but largely invisible too.”

        https://theecologist.org/2018/nov/15/climate-change-capitalism-and-military

      • “you continue to omit the Number 1 cause of all greenhouse gases throughout the world….Military Operations.” What an absurd statement that simply overgeneralizes and ignores basic facts. If we want to make broad sweeping statements that don’t address the issue, then factually speaking nature is the number 1 cause of all greenhouse gases.

      • Steve S, you seemed to have missed Communism?

        “China, the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, is ready to massively boost its coal-powered energy supply with the total of future projects now standing at 226.2 gigawatts (GW). That is more than twice the amount of fresh capacity planned for India, according to data published Thursday by environmental groups.

        The projects approved by China amount to nearly 40 percent of the world’s total planned coal-fired power plants. They are recorded in the Global Coal Exit List database run by German environmental organisation Urgewald and 30 other partner organisations.”

    • The bigger, nicer wood could be creamed for export – in principle. Much of AK’s forests are too small for saw logs – lumber. Pulp sells too.

      I don’t know the AK & China specifics, but pests are a big deal. Here in Western Washington we still set out gypsy moth traps to track an introduction from 40 years ago … iirc, from Russia … and that killed their big (and very nice … red fir?) export project.

      You got something killing billions of your spruce trees, right? Dead trees are so bad, they contribute to the fire danger? Well … if China doesn’t have that bug, they don’t want your logs.

      But yeah, sure, when Mount St Helens exploded in 1980 and flattened the forest, we salvage-logged like crazy. Bigger logs than anything north of Southeast … but yes fire & volcano salvage is a thing.

    • Yeah … but truck traffic is light on the Hwy … and the trees keep growing anyway … long as there’s a good fire program.

  3. Thanks to Craig for helping to put the complexities of our climate into perspective. However, there is another factor he hasn’t mentioned that contributes significantly to the public’s “buy-in” to the “we are doomed because of the global warming” mantra.

    Besides the various political motivations to alarm the public about wildfires and global warming, there is the fact that large populations have moved into areas prone to natural phenomena such as wildfires, hurricanes, flooding, etc.in the past half century. Therefore when these events occur now, the damage to human property becomes high and is used to show how much worse “Mother Nature” is now due to climate change. Unfortunately this argument rings true with many who have no political motivation and are not aware of the actual past natural history of the area involved.

    For instance, if the McKinley fire had happened 50 years ago, how many homes would have been destroyed?

  4. I believe #2 worst year was 1957, just under 6 million acres and long before anyone mentioned global warming. God only knows how many acres before WWII. Alaska history consists of a few years around the Gold Rush and then jumps to 1941.

  5. Sure, wildfire is natural, but there are plenty of things in nature – including ourselves – that are not good, and that we rightly suppress.

    A quick burn, then the air clears up, is one thing. Prolonged, ongoing, smouldering
    fires running weeks and months, is not a good thing.

    Planned, prescribed burns is one way to go … to reduce the susceptibility of the general environment to catch or support fire, to do the burns at the right time, under the right conditions, and especially so the air-quality impact is brief.

    Logging, or just biomass harvesting (of ‘noncommercial’ forest), can achieve the same goals as systematized burning, but with far fewer burns, stable employment, and sometimes even some profit.

    Renewable resource extraction – forestry in some form – also means “access”. This is great for locals … and it’s bad for eco-purity. In the higher-north areas, access can be pretty rudimentary, since it will freeze hard in the winter and doesn’t need to be a real road. The Haul Road has been successfully managed without bringing excessive wildlife impacts … and denser access networks can be (and have been/are) so managed, as well.

    I suspect Russia, Canada and Alaska will put much of the taiga into low-ball production … if for no other reason than to establish & support a reasonable rural ‘presence’ on the land. Isolated big cities partly ‘work’, but it works a lot better if there are country-people with something to do, better-dispersed across the landscape.

  6. “The U.S. Military Emits More CO2 Than Many Industrialized Nations…

     A new report from Brown University has estimated that since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the U.S. military has emitted 1,212 million metric tons of greenhouse gases.
    In 2017 alone, CO2 emissions added up to 59 million tons – more than many industrialized nations including Sweden and Switzerland.

    The US military is a bigger polluter than more than 100 countries combined…”

    https://www.forbes.com/sites/niallmccarthy/2019/06/13/report-the-u-s-military-emits-more-co2-than-many-industrialized-nations-infographic/#7e86f8bd4372

    • Nonsense statistics.

      Th US Military CO2 production is subsumed in overall US output, pulling it out as a separate entity is puerile and tells us nothing useful. We can hardly not have a military. In any event, the real news is the US has dropped and continues to drop CO2 emissions at an incredible rate hundreds of millions of tons over the past decade without crippling our economy to do so.

      And Niall apparently doesn’t understand how the military works. They aren’t sitting in their barracks in Germany being carbon neutral with those eeevilll deployments to Poland causing a spike. They are doing the same sort of deploying and training they already do at Weisbaden, with a negligible increase in any perceived output.

    • Perhaps, I thought, some of this credible evidence might be presented at today’s Climate Crisis Hearing, subtitled ‘Voices Leading the Next Generation on the Global Climate Crisis.’
      Instead, all that I heard was the usual junk science, fake statistics, left-wing agitprop, and scaremongering nonsense regurgitated by kids — some claiming to have mental health issues — who’d been brainwashed at school by their left-wing, know-nothing teachers.

  7. The ‘Unprecedented’ wildfires ravage the Arctic by CNN illustrates the point that for some perception is reality, it also illustrates the point that the media just says whatever it feels like facts be damned. I suppose to those with no understanding of geography Alaska is an Arctic state simply because a part of Alaska is in the Arctic, however specific to this article dealing with wildfires ravaging the Arctic the fires they are talking about are not in the Arctic. Anchorage is not in the Arctic, the fires that drew statewide and national attention in Alaska this summer were not in the Arctic. When the conversation starts with such a basic false premise how can an intelligent discussion occur? To most in the lower 48 the CNN article is a throw away article that will add to the collective heap of trash that has been piled on to the collective misunderstanding of not just basic geography but basic science and modern life.

  8. It really is amazing how many stupid people there are on the planet. If I had to do it over again, I’d make a point to take financial advantage of all the gullible sheep.

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