Setting the World on Fire

Drawing from “Fire in the Earth System,” a literature review published in the April 24 Science, Solmaz Barazesh explains fire ecology in his article in this week’s Science News, “Ecology, climate and human activities conspire to set the world on fire,” July 4th, 2009; Vol.176 #1 (p. 26).
Fire can shape landscapes, shift climate and even change processes such as the carbon cycle–blazes have impacted the planet for eons. But now, people could be shifting the balance in a new direction.
While fires may burn locally, their consequences spread globally. When forests blaze, carbon stored in vegetation escapes into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Added up, the fires that burn all over the world could be a significant source of atmospheric carbon, even contributing to climate change.
“Our calculations show that forest fires could account for one-fifth of the greenhouse gases produced by humans,” [Jennifer] Balch says.
Besides releasing heat-trapping carbon dioxide, fire contributes to climate change by releasing aerosols, or black soot. Soot can warm the atmosphere by absorbing solar radiation.
Fire is such a large source of carbon that it should be incorporated into predictions of climate change, researchers note.
“There’s an emerging need to look at fire at the intersection between biology, ecology and society,” David Bowman said. Paso Pacifico founder, Sarah Otterstrom, agrees, which is why she examined that very intersection in her doctoral studies.
As a graduate student, Sarah, already passionate about climate change and the people and biodiversity of Central America, wanted to understand how the fires of traditional agriculture and hunting affected tropical forests. She had spent a couple years leading tourist expeditions through the rainforest canopy in Costa Rica, and had grown interested in climatological cycles and their link to fire and storm events. In the dry forests of Nicaragua, Sarah studied traditional agriculture, fire, climate change, and forest regeneration.
Paso Pacifico benefits from Sarah’s natural curiosity and her dedication to understanding cultural traditions as she explores and addresses environmental problems. This attitude informs our holistic approach to conservation and economic development.
Read more about our Results Through Science.
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