2016-08-26   facebooktwitterrss

How Wildfires Impact Ecosystems

Understanding how wildfires impact ecosystems could help to improve predictions of future climate changes, according to an expert from the University of Leicester.

Dr Kirsten Barrett from the University of Leicester Department of Geography has written an article for Think: Leicester, the University’s platform for independent academic opinion, outlining how wildfires can threaten or destroy human settlements and impact the climate through carbon emissions – and some of the hurdles in preventing fires occurring.


In the article Dr Barrett writes:
“Boreal wildfires have been in the news quite a bit lately, with major fires in Alaska last summer, the evacuation of Ft McMurray earlier this year, and widespread burning across Siberia this summer.

“Boreal forests constitute the largest forested ecosystem on earth, and although they are generally located in colder regions, they are prone to burning, particularly during hot and dry summers.

“The immediate costs to human society are easier to quantify than the more dispersed costs of future climate changes, but both impacts can have potentially serious consequences.

“Fires alter forests by changing the amount of carbon stored in vegetation and soils, thereby affecting the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and the risk of additional fire. The change in surface reflectance properties, by char and ash over the short term, and by sustained changes in vegetation type over the long term, also impacts climate.

“To improve our understanding and predictions of future climate changes, we need better information about how wildfires impact boreal ecosystems, and how these effects in turn cause changes in climate.

“Probably the biggest hurdle to preventing fires is knowing where to direct our efforts. It is often difficult to know where fires are likely to ignite, particularly when they are caused by lightning strikes. And many boreal fires occur in regions that are very sparsely populated, so they may never encroach on human settlements.

“In regions where wildfires have been suppressed, such as the western US, those unburned fuels have subsequently built up to critical points where it is no longer possible to prevent periodically massive fire outbreaks.

“Therefore rather than focusing on how to stop boreal wildfire disturbances, we need to concentrate our research efforts on understanding how fires respond to and impact climate, and building this knowledge into projections of future change.”

Leicester University

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