skip to main content


Title: Fixing a snag in carbon emissions estimates from wildfires
Abstract

Wildfire is an essential earth‐system process, impacting ecosystem processes and the carbon cycle. Forest fires are becoming more frequent and severe, yet gaps exist in the modeling of fire on vegetation and carbon dynamics. Strategies for reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from wildfires include increasing tree harvest, largely based on the public assumption that fires burn live forests to the ground, despite observations indicating that less than 5% of mature tree biomass is actually consumed. This misconception is also reflected though excessive combustion of live trees in models. Here, we show that regional emissions estimates using widely implemented combustion coefficients are 59%–83% higher than emissions based on field observations. Using unique field datasets from before and after wildfires and an improved ecosystem model, we provide strong evidence that these large overestimates can be reduced by using realistic biomass combustion factors and by accurately quantifying biomass in standing dead trees that decompose over decades to centuries after fire (“snags”). Most model development focuses on area burned; our results reveal that accurately representing combustion is also essential for quantifying fire impacts on ecosystems. Using our improvements, we find that western US forest fires have emitted 851 ± 228 Tg CO2(~half of alternative estimates) over the last 17 years, which is minor compared to 16,200 Tg CO2from fossil fuels across the region.

 
more » « less
Award ID(s):
1553049 1655183 1655121
NSF-PAR ID:
10374378
Author(s) / Creator(s):
 ;  ;  ;  ;  ;  ;  ;  ;  ;  ;  
Publisher / Repository:
Wiley-Blackwell
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Global Change Biology
Volume:
25
Issue:
11
ISSN:
1354-1013
Page Range / eLocation ID:
p. 3985-3994
Format(s):
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Abstract Wildfires in humid tropical forests have become more common in recent years, increasing the rates of tree mortality in forests that have not co-evolved with fire. Estimating carbon emissions from these wildfires is complex. Current approaches rely on estimates of committed emissions based on static emission factors through time and space, yet these emissions cannot be assigned to specific years, and thus are not comparable with other temporally-explicit emission sources. Moreover, committed emissions are gross estimates, whereas the long-term consequences of wildfires require an understanding of net emissions that accounts for post-fire uptake of CO 2 . Here, using a 30 year wildfire chronosequence from across the Brazilian Amazon, we calculate net CO 2 emissions from Amazon wildfires by developing statistical models comparing post-fire changes in stem mortality, necromass decomposition and vegetation growth with unburned forest plots sampled at the same time. Over the 30 yr time period, gross emissions from combustion during the fire and subsequent tree mortality and decomposition were equivalent to 126.1 Mg CO 2 ha −1 of which 73% (92.4 Mg CO 2 ha −1 ) resulted from mortality and decomposition. These emissions were only partially offset by forest growth, with an estimated CO 2 uptake of 45.0 Mg ha −1 over the same time period. Our analysis allowed us to assign emissions and growth across years, revealing that net annual emissions peak 4 yr after forest fires. At present, Brazil’s National Determined Contribution (NDC) for emissions fails to consider forest fires as a significant source, even though these are likely to make a substantial and long-term impact on the net carbon balance of Amazonia. Considering long-term post-fire necromass decomposition and vegetation regrowth is crucial for improving global carbon budget estimates and national greenhouse gases (GHG) inventories for tropical forest countries. 
    more » « less
  2. null (Ed.)
    Abstract Wildfires are a major disturbance to forest carbon (C) balance through both immediate combustion emissions and post-fire ecosystem dynamics. Here we used a process-based biogeochemistry model, the Terrestrial Ecosystem Model (TEM), to simulate C budget in Alaska and Canada during 1986–2016, as impacted by fire disturbances. We extracted the data of difference Normalized Burn Ratio (dNBR) for fires from Landsat TM/ETM imagery and estimated the proportion of vegetation and soil C combustion. We observed that the region was a C source of 2.74 Pg C during the 31-year period. The observed C loss, 57.1 Tg C year −1 , was attributed to fire emissions, overwhelming the net ecosystem production (1.9 Tg C year −1 ) in the region. Our simulated direct emissions for Alaska and Canada are within the range of field measurements and other model estimates. As burn severity increased, combustion emission tended to switch from vegetation origin towards soil origin. When dNBR is below 300, fires increase soil temperature and decrease soil moisture and thus, enhance soil respiration. However, the post-fire soil respiration decreases for moderate or high burn severity. The proportion of post-fire soil emission in total emissions increased with burn severity. Net nitrogen mineralization gradually recovered after fire, enhancing net primary production. Net ecosystem production recovered fast under higher burn severities. The impact of fire disturbance on the C balance of northern ecosystems and the associated uncertainties can be better characterized with long-term, prior-, during- and post-disturbance data across the geospatial spectrum. Our findings suggest that the regional source of carbon to the atmosphere will persist if the observed forest wildfire occurrence and severity continues into the future. 
    more » « less
  3. Carbon (C) emissions from forest fires in the Amazon during extreme droughts may correspond to more than half of the global emissions resulting from land cover changes. Despite their relevant contribution, forest fire-related C emissions are not directly accounted for within national-level inventories or carbon budgets. A fundamental condition for quantifying these emissions is to have a reliable estimation of the extent and location of land cover types affected by fires. Here, we evaluated the relative performance of four burned area products (TREES, MCD64A1 c6, GABAM, and Fire_cci v5.0), contrasting their estimates of total burned area, and their influence on the fire-related C emissions in the Amazon biome for the year 2015. In addition, we distinguished the burned areas occurring in forests from non-forest areas. The four products presented great divergence in the total burned area and, consequently, total related C emissions. Globally, the TREES product detected the largest amount of burned area (35,559 km2), and consequently it presented the largest estimate of committed carbon emission (45 Tg), followed by MCD64A1, with only 3% less burned area detected, GABAM (28,193 km2) and Fire_cci (14,924 km2). The use of Fire_cci may result in an underestimation of 29.54 ± 3.36 Tg of C emissions in relation to the TREES product. The same pattern was found for non-forest areas. Considering only forest burned areas, GABAM was the product that detected the largest area (8994 km2), followed by TREES (7985 km2), MCD64A1 (7181 km2) and Fire_cci (1745 km2). Regionally, Fire_cci detected 98% less burned area in Acre state in southwest Amazonia than TREES, and approximately 160 times less burned area in forests than GABAM. Thus, we show that global products used interchangeably on a regional scale could significantly underestimate the impacts caused by fire and, consequently, their related carbon emissions. 
    more » « less
  4. Abstract. Tundra environments are experiencing elevated levels of wildfire, and thefrequency is expected to keep increasing due to rapid climate change in theArctic. Tundra wildfires can release globally significant amounts ofgreenhouse gasses that influence the Earth's radiative balance. Here wedevelop a novel method for estimating carbon loss and the resultingradiative forcings of gaseous and aerosol emissions from the 2015 tundrawildfires in the Yukon–Kuskokwim Delta (YKD), Alaska. We paired burn depthmeasurements using two vegetative reference points that survived the fireevent – Sphagnum fuscum and Dicranum spp. – with measurements of local organic matter and soil carbonproperties to estimate total ecosystem organic matter and carbon loss. Weused remotely sensed data on fire severity from Landsat 8 to scale ourmeasured losses to the entire fire-affected area, with an estimated totalloss of 2.04 Tg of organic matter and 0.91 Tg of carbon and an average lossof 3.76 kg m−2 of organic matter and 1.68 kg m−2 of carbon in the2015 YKD wildfires. To demonstrate the impact of these fires on the Earth'sradiation budget, we developed a simple but comprehensive framework toestimate the radiative forcing from Arctic wildfires. We synthesizedexisting research on the lifetime and radiative forcings of gaseous andaerosol emissions of CO2, N2O, CH4, O3 and itsprecursors, and fire aerosols. The model shows a net positive cumulativemean radiative forcing of 3.67 W m−2 using representative concentration pathway (RCP) 4.5 and 3.37 W m−2using RCP 8.5 at 80 years post-fire, which was dominated by CO2emissions. Our results highlight the climate impact of tundra wildfires,which positively reinforce climate warming and increased fire frequencythrough the radiative forcings of their gaseous emissions. 
    more » « less
  5. Abstract

    Drought, fire, and windstorms can interact to degrade tropical forests and the ecosystem services they provide, but how these forests recover after catastrophic disturbance events remains relatively unknown. Here, we analyze multi‐year measurements of vegetation dynamics and function (fluxes of CO2and H2O) in forests recovering from 7 years of controlled burns, followed by wind disturbance. Located in southeast Amazonia, the experimental forest consists of three 50‐ha plots burned annually, triennially, or not at all from 2004 to 2010. During the subsequent 6‐year recovery period, postfire tree survivorship and biomass sharply declined, with aboveground C stocks decreasing by 70%–94% along forest edges (0–200 m into the forest) and 36%–40% in the forest interior. Vegetation regrowth in the forest understory triggered partial canopy closure (70%–80%) from 2010 to 2015. The composition and spatial distribution of grasses invading degraded forest evolved rapidly, likely because of the delayed mortality. Four years after the experimental fires ended (2014), the burned plots assimilated 36% less carbon than the Control, but net CO2exchange and evapotranspiration (ET) had fully recovered 7 years after the experimental fires ended (2017). Carbon uptake recovery occurred largely in response to increased light‐use efficiency and reduced postfire respiration, whereas increased water use associated with postfire growth of new recruits and remaining trees explained the recovery in ET. Although the effects of interacting disturbances (e.g., fires, forest fragmentation, and blowdown events) on mortality and biomass persist over many years, the rapid recovery of carbon and water fluxes can help stabilize local climate.

     
    more » « less