There Will Be Fire: The 'Carbon Bomb' 'Waiting to Be Ignited'

Scientist: With climate change fires will become more frequent, more intense and harder to stop.

"We are going to see more fire in (the) future, that's the bottom line." "A warmer world's going to see more fire."

This eery warning comes from Mike Flannigan, a senior research scientist with Natural Resources Canada and professor at the University of Alberta, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He says that fires will become more frequent, more intense and harder to stop.

Flannigan's "conservative estimate" states there would be two to three times more fire activity in the northern hemisphere by the end of the century.

"If a fire is intense, aerial suppression is no longer effective, so even modern fire management agencies, like Canada, the United States and Australia -- among the best in the world -- will be extremely challenged," he said.

"I would argue that the standard way of doing fire management will no longer be effective in the future. And that doesn't even begin to address many parts of the globe where they have traditional fire-suppression approaches, which will be completely overwhelmed."

"So the risk to life and infrastructure is only going to increase under climate change."

Flannigan added that peat fires are also expected to dramatically raise greenhouse gas emissions, Postmedia Newsreports:

If more wildfires were not bad enough, Flannigan said the warming climate means peat lands, which contain vast stores of carbon, are also more likely to ignite and release greenhouse gas emissions. The emissions could in turn "feed" more warming and more fire.

A 1997 fire in Indonesia ignited peat lands that smouldered for months. By the time it was over, Flannigan said the peat fire had released greenhouse gases equal to 20 to 40 per cent of the total worldwide emissions that year from fossil fuels.

Peat fires in the boreal could have the potential to release far more greenhouse gases. "Our peat reserves in Canada, Russia and Alaska dwarf anything in Indonesia," he said in an interview.

Inter Press Servicereports that one researcher referred to the northern forest as a "carbon bomb" "waiting to be ignited:"

When the increased fire from global warming was first detected in 2006, Johann Goldammer of the Global Fire Monitoring Center at Germany's Freiburg University called the northern forest a "carbon bomb".

"It's sitting there waiting to be ignited, and there is already ignition going on," Goldammer said according to media reports in 2006.

Inter Press Servicecontinues:

About half the world's soil carbon is locked in northern permafrost and peatland soils, said Merritt Turetsky, an ecologist at Canada's University of Guelph. This carbon has been accumulating for thousands of years, but fires can release much of this into the atmosphere rapidly, Turetsky said in a release.

Over the past 10 years, fires are burning far more boreal forest than ever before. Longer snow-free seasons, melting permafrost and rising temperatures are large-scale changes underway in the north, Turetsky and colleagues have found.

Other researchers have shown that the average size of forest fires in the boreal zone of western Canada has tripled since the 1980s. Much of Canada's vast forest region is approaching a tipping point, warned researchers at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Germany's largest research organisation.

This "drastic change" in normal fire pattern has occurred with a only a small increase in temperatures relative to future temperatures, the German researchers concluded in a study published in the December 2011 issue of The American Naturalist.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.