Radio Ecoshock: New Age of Super Fires
15 July, 2015
Three key interviews on new role of fire during global warming. John Betts on super fires and what we can do. Tom Gower on science of burning north lands. Marc-Andre Parisien on mega-fires in Canadian North.
As forest fires rage across the Western half of North America, I've prepared a special show for your summer listening. Last week we heard 3 experts speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meet-up. This week I've pulled three of our best Radio Ecoshock interviews on the new age of super fires.
And there's a super fire raging right now in the Canadian prairie province of Saskatchewan. In the north is a fire burning over 100,000 hectares, about 250,000 acres of boreal forest. Our guest John Betts tells us about the new age of super fires, their causes and what communities and individuals can do to reduce the risk of unstoppable fires in the age of global warming.
I think the unreported fires in the far north of Alaska, Canada, and Russia are a big deal. Those forests were once carbon store houses which now become an addition source of greenhouse gases. If the top of the world burns, vast quantities of once frozen life can also be turned into both carbon dioxide and methane. Everyone in the world needs to know about this story, where ever you may live.
So we'll reach back to 2007, just a year after Radio Ecoshock began. In a short interview, Dr. Tom Gower talks about his research on fires in Northern Canada as a positive feedback loop in climate change. Then from September 2014, Marc-Andre Parisien from the Canadian Forest Service tells us about record mega-fires in the Canadian far north.
By the way, there is a new paper published in July 2015 by the journal Nature showing that climate change is definitely creating conditions for an increase in wild fires - in many parts of the world. The paper is titled "Climate-induced variations in global wildfire danger from 1979 to 2013" and you can read the full text, with helpful graphic maps, here.
The summary says:
"Climate strongly influences global wildfire activity, and recent wildfire surges may signal fire weather-induced pyrogeographic shifts. Here we use three daily global climate data sets and three fire danger indices to develop a simple annual metric of fire weather season length, and map spatio-temporal trends from 1979 to 2013. We show that fire weather seasons have lengthened across 29.6 million km2 (25.3%) of the Earth’s vegetated surface, resulting in an 18.7% increase in global mean fire weather season length. We also show a doubling (108.1% increase) of global burnable area affected by long fire weather seasons (>1.0 s above the historical mean) and an increased global frequency of long fire weather seasons across 62.4?million?km2 (53.4%) during the second half of the study period. If these fire weather changes are coupled with ignition sources and available fuel, they could markedly impact global ecosystems, societies, economies and climate."
I'm Alex Smith. Welcome to another hot summer on Radio Ecoshock.
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JOHN BETTS: THE AGE OF SUPER FIRES
Are we entering the age of super forest fires? Our guest is John Betts, Executive Director of the Western Silvicultural Contractors' Association in British Columbia, Canada. He's in the gorgeous lake-side town of Nelson British Columbia - right in the path of the dead pines forest fire threat.
As a leader in an industry devoted to "managing" our forests, often by removing excess undergrowth, John advocates removing "fuel" from the forests before a disaster strikes. In years past, environmentalists have insisted such decay is natural and the woods should be left to their own devices.
Now it's different. With global warming and warmer winters, the Rocky Mountain Pine Bark Beetle has killed off entire valleys of pine trees. They will eventually burn - and some surround communities in the interior of British Columbia, and soon in Alberta too.
The same problem exists in the United States west, due to other bugs and general drying with climate pressures. Just consider the big fires in Colorado in 2012. The fires in Australia also look climate-related.
Betts adds a further cause: namely our success in stopping forest fires, (he calls it "suppression"). Most of these forests, especially in Western North America, were adapted to cycles of fires. The coniferous seeds could withstand a fire and regrow.
We know from studying forest soils there have been periods of fire for many centuries. But now with water bombers and new techniques, we stop them from burning, in our parks, on private lands, and around cities. John Betts says this means an abnormal amount of dead brush builds up beneath the trees. That's a recipe for a "super fire" - one we can't put out, until it burns out, or gets rained out.
In British Columbia, the dead pines can build into a kind of pyramid structure, just like you might build in a fire pit. That burns so hot it kills off any seeds. In fact, it can sterilize the soil even of helpful fungi and bacteria. So the forest doesn't grow back, and the ecology has been damaged.
Australia may or may not be a special case, with the eucalyptus trees and their oil, which act like instant torches. Note the Eucalyptus has been planted in California, in the U.S. South East, and around the Mediterranean. That could be a big mistake.
But with long drought, and excessive heat, we've seen many parts of the world burn as we've never seen in recent centuries. Consider the 2010 great fires in Russia which claimed hundreds of lives. Just previous to that, Serbia had giant fires, as did Greece and Spain. It's an ominous trend, which John Betts says is no accident.
As global heating continues, and the weather systems are thrown out of whack, we can expect a new age of great fires. Now you know the news before it hits your TV screen or headline. Expect it.
Betts advises communities how to prepare. Things like removing brush, or even if necessary, creating fire breaks around towns. And we should stop our home-building invasion of the woods, particularly in fire-ready areas. Having people living there drives more efforts to put fires out, which leads to the danger cycle again. Or people stay and try to fight the impossible flames, and die as they did in Australia. The government there has changed its advice - now telling people to get out, rather than remaining home with garden hoses against the inferno.
We need a lot of discussion and preparation to make sure our communities are safe, and our forests can return to some kind of natural cycle again - if "natural" is still possible in a big climate shift! It's possible some forests will never return, changing over to grasslands. We don't know yet, as we gamble away the future of the biosphere on a small planet.
FIRE EXPERT MARC-ANDRE PARISIEN
Regular Ecoshock listeners know wildfires in the Arctic are bigger and badder than ever. Scientists predict a huge increase over the coming decades due to changes in climate, and various feed-backs triggered by global warming. Could the whole boreal forest burn down?
New research has taken us deeper into fire behavior in the far north. The paper that caught my eye is titled "Resistance of the boreal forest to high burn rates." Our next guest is one of the authors. Marc-Andre Parisien is a research scientist for the Northern Forestry Centre of Natural Resources Canada’s Canadian Forest Service, located in Edmonton Alberta.
Along with scientists at the Centre for Northern Studies in Quebec, Parisien is an author of the new paper "Resistance of the boreal forest to high burn rates" published in PNAS, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on August 4th, 2014. You would need to be a paid member of PNAS to read this, but find the abstract here.
Marc most of us can barely imagine the size and condition of the great Boreal forest. It runs from Alaska right across the whole of Canada to Labrador - and that's just in North America. There is more in Scandinavia and Siberia.
Television doesn't report on fires in Canada's far north. Most of these blazes run their course with no one trying to put them out. How large can a fire get? A single large fire can be bigger than the island of Manhattan, which is 9,000 hectares, or more than 22,000 acres. One fire in the Canadian province of Quebec was 560,000 hectares, or 1.3 million acres.
This summer of 2014, Parisien tells us, over 4.6 million hectares of forest burned (11.3 million acres) - that is larger than Switzerland. It's a stunning amount of carbon taken from trees and forced into the atmosphere. That is when forests become a carbon source, rather than a carbon sink. It's also a huge burst of black soot, a global warming agent on it's own, and a contributor to the blackening of Greenland.
There are very different estimates for the increase in northern fires as the planet warms. By 2100, some scientists suggest forest fires in that region will increase by 30%. Others have suggested they might increase by 500%. If that becomes reality, we can doubt whether northern forests will continue to exist.
The one possible saving agent, and the point of the paper by Parisien and scientists from a Quebec University - statistically, forests that burned within the last 40 or 50 years are LESS likely to burn again in our time. It looks like there is a kind of negative feedback loop at work here, at least for forest fires. However, I feel all that is uncertain as the Boreal and Tundra continue to heat up much more than the rest of the planet. We're running a big experiment here on planet Earth.
In this interview, Marc-Andre notes that fires are not the only threat to northern forests. As the permafrost melts, trees can lose their hold in soil, tipping over in a phenomenon known as "drunken forests". These can already be seen in Alaska and the Yukon. We may also see changes in hydrology (when it rains or snows) as the planet warms. And forests have already been hit hard by changes in insects, like the Rocky Mountain Pine Bark Beetle which is killing off whole valleys of pines. These were enabled in such great numbers by a continuing lack of winters cold enough to kill them off.
We didn't have time to talk about the other big threat: logging the Boreal forest. It's huge, all for toilet paper and other items we throw away. Find out about endangered Boreal forest logging at Greenpeace here, Forest Ethics here, or Canopy here.
Marc-Andre listed other Canadian scientists who are studying the impacts of climate change on fires and the Canadian northern forests (despite Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister of the Tar Sands). He also recommends this web site: the Canadian Wildland Fire Information System. There you can find all kinds of helpful maps, charts and information. It's a super resource for those who care about what happens in the North. Since the future of the world may be partly determined by what happens there, that's you and everybody else in the world.
TOM GOWER: FIRES IN THE CANADIAN NORTH (from the Radio Ecoshock Show November 16, 2007)
In the last few years, as the North heats up, wild fires have been burning, unreported and unopposed, across the top of the world, in both Canada and Siberia.
The latest climate models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change does NOT include this growing source of carbon.
Dr. Tom Gower was from the University of Wisconsin/Madison, and is now with the North Caroline State University Department of Forestry. In this exclusive interview with Radio Ecoshock, Dr. Gower explains the vast boreal forest of Canada is no longer a carbon sink. It is losing more carbon to wild fires, than the trees can gather up.
Forestry scientist Tom Gower
This has severe implications for our climate - it becomes a positive feedback loop. The snow melts earlier, the fire season is extended, it's much hotter up North (climate hits the Northern pole much heavier) - it all adds up to a big tinderbox waiting for the next lightening strike.
Dr. Gower's research was just published in the journal "Nature" on November 1st, 2007.
As Dr. Gower says, the recent fires in California as child's play compared to the massive fires in northern Canada. There's just no news crews up there.
This is part of a larger special program on Radio Ecoshock on the forest "carbon bomb." As one of our speakers, temperate rainforest activist Pat Rasmussen says, there is more carbon in the trees, by far, than in the whole atmosphere. It that gets released in a short period of years, it will be a "carbon bomb" changing climate drastically.
In the one hour Ecoshock program, we weigh out reports that the California fires were brought on by climate change (maybe, maybe not) - and then look at new science by Dr. Lara Kueppers who also says the forests of the Rockies are now emitting more carbon than they can capture. Forests are no longer our friends, now that we have changed the climate.
A 60 Minutes program, called the Age of MegaFires, even found an Arizona scientists saying that the American West will lost half its forests in the coming century, due to climate change!
Half the forests going!
We also try to figure out how much carbon is ready to go up in smoke, as the huge dead pine forests of British Columbia catch fire in the coming years. The Mountain Pine Bark Beetle, previously controlled by cold winters, has killed off 32 million acres of trees, and more to come. They are red, grey, dead, and waiting to burn.
The wild thing is that governments don't even count wild fire carbon in their grand plans and promises. In reality, California should take half a million cars off the road just to offset the carbon that came out of the recent fires. Canada must reduce it's emissions even more, because of the carbon coming from northern fires. British Columbia, the same.
These governments are cheating - but Mother Nature (the geo-physical system if you prefer) counts it ALL. No fooling the real atmosphere, which doesn't care where the carbon comes from, or what your excuse is.
NEW CLIMATE MUSIC
The United Nations Framework on Climate Change press room is running a weekly platform for climate music. I heard the lyrics for this next song by a Swedish writer calling himself "Climate Man". You can hear all of his music at climatesongs.com. We got in touch by email, and I agreed to produce a new electronic music remix for his song "CO2 Society".
You can find my version, with my own new music and voice, on the Radio Ecoshock soundcloud page to download or share for free. This is it.