Speaking at the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics’ (IUGG’s) Earth on the Edge: Science for a Sustainable Planet conference in Melbourne, Australia, CSIRO’s Dr Melita Keywood has said that closer scientific study is needed to determine just how the frequency and intensity of wildfires and intentional biomass burning will change in a future climate.
Dr Keywood notes that fire is likely to become a very important driver of atmospheric change as the world continues to warm.
“Understanding changes in the occurrence and magnitude of fires will be an important challenge for which there needs to be a clear focus on the tools and methodologies available to scientists to predict fire occurrence in a changing climate.”
Dr Keywood also noted that the long-term climate change and short-term variability in fire activity is complex, with a string of unknown feedbacks possible.
“Fires require fuel to burn and climate strongly affects the type, quantity and quality of fuel. Periods of high rainfall or high atmospheric carbon dioside levels may result in increased biomass growth so that fuel loads may be enhanced in future fire seasons,” said Dr Keywood.
“Reduced water availability associated with drought may also result in drier biomass that is more readily burned in possibly more intense fires, while higher temperatures and other extreme weather may lengthen fire seasons and result in increased likelihood of fire ignitions and longer burning periods. Vegetation types are also altered in a changing climate.”
“In turn, fires influence climate by the emissions to the atmosphere of aerosols and GHG, and by affecting the ability of terrestrial ecosystems to sequester carbon.”
However, Dr Keywood notes that there is some evidence that fire activity is already increasing in the Western US forests, not to mention the increasingly intense fire events such as Australian Black Saturday fires in 2009 and Russian fires in 2010, all of which highlight the devastation resulting from fires which themselves are believed to be a result of extreme weather.
“The impacts of emissions from fires on global atmospheric chemistry, and on the atmospheric burden of greenhouse gases and aerosols, are recognised but gaps remain in our scientific understanding of the processes involved and the environmental consequences of fires,” said Dr Keywood.
“While significant uncertainty remains in the long-term impacts of forest fires on climate, new sophisticated observational and modelling tools have recently become available. These tools provide insight into changing wildfires and intentional biomass burning emissions on the current and future climate.”
“Wildfires and biomass burning are important for a range of international and domestic policies – from air pollution to climate, poverty, security, food supply, and biodiversity.”
“These feedbacks between fire and climate change reinforce the need for fire-related research that is based on scientifically sound measurements and modelling” she added.