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Smoke rises from a wildfire on July 3, 2019 south of Talkeetna, Alaska near the George Parks Highway

Smoke rises from a wildfire on July 3, 2019 south of Talkeetna, Alaska near the George Parks Highway. (Photo: Lance King/Getty Images)

North American Wildfires Could Use Up 'Sizable Amount' of Global Carbon Budget: Study

"If not properly contained, heat-trapping emissions from wildfires in boreal forests could dramatically increase, jeopardizing nations' ability to limit warming in line with the Paris agreement."

Jessica Corbett

A first-of-its-kind study revealed Wednesday that wildfires in U.S. and Canadian boreal forests could hinder efforts to meet global climate goals by using up a "sizable amount" of the world's carbon budget through 2050.

"Wildfires in boreal forests can be especially harmful... since they store about two-thirds of the world's forest carbon."

The analysis, published in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances, was led by Carly Phillips, a fellow with the Western States Climate Team at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

"Wildfires in boreal forests can be especially harmful in terms of the amount of emissions they release into the atmosphere since they store about two-thirds of the world's forest carbon, most of which is contained in the soil and has accumulated over hundreds or even thousands of years," Phillips said in a statement.

"If not properly contained, heat-trapping emissions from wildfires in boreal forests could dramatically increase, jeopardizing nations' ability to limit warming in line with the Paris agreement," she warned, referencing the 2015 deal that aims to keep temperature rise this century below 2°C, and preferably no higher than 1.5°C.

As UCS summarized, "The study found that by midcentury, burned area in Alaskan and Canadian boreal forests is projected to increase as much as 169% and 150%, respectively, releasing nearly 12 gigatons of net carbon emissions—equivalent to the annual emissions of 2.6 billion cars—which represents about 3% of the remaining global carbon budget."

"These estimates are conservative," the group noted, "as the study did not assess the potential for boreal forest wildfires to accelerate permafrost thaw and other ecosystem processes that could further increase net carbon emissions."

The paper—co-authored by researchers from Hamilton College, Harvard University, Tufts University, University of California, and Woodwell Climate Research Center—follows the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which underscored the necessity of nations worldwide ramping up efforts to swiftly reduce planet-heating emissions.

The IPCC report coincided with a wave of demonstrations by scientists and other advocates of bold climate policy worldwide. While many of the actions focused on transitioning off of fossil fuels, the new paper highlights that governments also need to make other moves to address the crisis.

"Governments rightly prioritize rapid suppression of wildfires that occur near heavily populated areas and crucial infrastructure, but allow other areas that hold large amounts of carbon to burn—a practice hazardous to the health and safety of communities in Alaska, Canada, and beyond," explained co-author Peter Frumhoff, a research scientist at Harvard's Center for the Environment.

"Expanding fire management to keep wildfires near historical levels across boreal North America would provide multiple benefits and leave us far better positioned to meet the goals of the Paris agreement," he said.

"Reducing boreal forest fires to near-historical levels and keeping carbon in the ground will require additional investments."

Co-author Brendan Rogers, an associate scientist at Woodwell Climate Research Center, emphasized that "reducing boreal forest fires to near-historical levels and keeping carbon in the ground will require additional investments."

"These funds are comparatively low and pale in comparison to the costs countries will face to cope with the growing health consequences exacerbated by worsening air quality and the more frequent and intense climate impacts that are expected if emissions continue to rise unabated," she added. "They can also ensure wildlife, tourism, jobs, and many other facets of our society can persevere in a warming world."

In Alaska, the research team found that the average cost of avoiding the emission of one metric ton of carbon dioxide was $12.63. They also found that keeping emissions from Alaskan wildfires at historical levels would require an investment of $7.1 billion to $50 billion over the next 30 years—including $696 million annually through the end of this decade.

"This would entail a sizeable increase in fire management budgets for Alaska, where state and federal fire management expenditures jointly average about $133 million/year, a small percentage of which go toward direct response costs," the paper says. "Estimates of these annual average response costs vary from federal costs of $27 million to total costs of $85 million."

"However, it is also small relative to overall U.S. federal expenditures in wildfire suppression, which totaled over $3.1 billion in 2018," the analysis adds. "Within the United States, Alaska receives a disproportionately small amount (less than 4% on average) of federal resources for fire management despite accounting for roughly 20% of the U.S. land area and half of the average annual U.S. fire emissions."


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