Thursday, January 31, 2013

Two new papers find global fire activity decreased in 20th century

In his inauguration speech, President Obama claimed the "devastating impact of raging fires" was due to man-made climate change. However, two papers published this week find that global fire activity has declined since pre-industrial times. The first paper notes biomass "burning during the past century generally decreased," and the second paper states that "biomass burning emissions over the past millennium exceeded contemporary emissions by up to a factor of 4 for certain time periods." In addition, historical analysis of wildfires around the world shows that since 1950 their numbers have decreased globally by 15%. The President's fear-mongering of a connection between fires and alleged anthropogenic global warming is rejected by "the overwhelming judgement of science." 

Global biomass burning: a synthesis and review of Holocene paleofire records and their controls

Abstract

We synthesize existing sedimentary charcoal records to reconstruct Holocene fire history at regional, continental and global scales. The reconstructions are compared with the two potential controls of burning at these broad scales – changes in climate and human activities – to assess their relative importance on trends in biomass burning. Here we consider several hypotheses that have been advanced to explain the Holocene record of fire, including climate, human activities and synergies between the two. Our results suggest that 1) episodes of high fire activity were relatively common in the early Holocene and were consistent with climate changes despite low global temperatures and low levels of biomass burning globally; 2) there is little evidence from the paleofire record to support the Early Anthropocene Hypothesis of human modification of the global carbon cycle; 3) there was a nearly-global increase in fire activity from 3 to 2 ka that is difficult to explain with either climate or humans, but the widespread and synchronous nature of the increase suggests at least a partial climate forcing; and 4) burning during the past century generally decreased but was spatially variable; it declined sharply in many areas, but there were also large increases (e.g., Australia and parts of Europe). Our analysis does not exclude an important role for human activities on global biomass burning during the Holocene, but instead provides evidence for a pervasive influence of climate across multiple spatial and temporal scales.

Clim. Past, 9, 289-306, 2013
www.clim-past.net/9/289/2013/
doi:10.5194/cp-9-289-2013

What could have caused pre-industrial biomass burning emissions to exceed current rates?

G. R. van der Werf et al

Abstract. Recent studies based on trace gas mixing ratios in ice cores and charcoal data indicate that biomass burning emissions over the past millennium exceeded contemporary emissions by up to a factor of 4 for certain time periods. This is surprising because various sources of biomass burning are linked with population density, which has increased over the past centuries. We have analysed how emissions from several landscape biomass burning sources could have fluctuated to yield emissions that are in correspondence with recent results based on ice core mixing ratios of carbon monoxide (CO) and its isotopic signature measured at South Pole station (SPO). Based on estimates of contemporary landscape fire emissions and the TM5 chemical transport model driven by present-day atmospheric transport and OH concentrations, we found that CO mixing ratios at SPO are more sensitive to emissions from South America and Australia than from Africa, and are relatively insensitive to emissions from the Northern Hemisphere. We then explored how various landscape biomass burning sources may have varied over the past centuries and what the resulting emissions and corresponding CO mixing ratio at SPO would be, using population density variations to reconstruct sources driven by humans (e.g., fuelwood burning) and a new model to relate savanna emissions to changes in fire return times. We found that to match the observed ice core CO data, all savannas in the Southern Hemisphere had to burn annually, or bi-annually in combination with deforestation and slash and burn agriculture exceeding current levels, despite much lower population densities and lack of machinery to aid the deforestation process. While possible, these scenarios are unlikely and in conflict with current literature. However, we do show the large potential for increased emissions from savannas in a pre-industrial world. This is mainly because in the past, fuel beds were probably less fragmented compared to the current situation; satellite data indicates that the majority of savannas have not burned in the past 10 yr, even in Africa, which is considered "the burning continent". Although we have not considered increased charcoal burning or changes in OH concentrations as potential causes for the elevated CO concentrations found at SPO, it is unlikely they can explain the large increase found in the CO concentrations in ice core data. Confirmation of the CO ice core data would therefore call for radical new thinking about causes of variable global fire rates over recent centuries.

 Final Revised Paper (PDF, 2744 KB)   Discussion Paper (CPD)   

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