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Sunday, April 19, 2015

Wildfires add to atmospheric CO2: A lesson for Australia from California

Sou | 4:23 PM Go to the first of 7 comments. Add a comment

There still isn't a lot happening in deniersville. Anthony Watts and his readers are gloating that their campaigns against climate science are having an effect. Well, Anthony doesn't actually admit that denier smear campaigns might be giving graduates second thoughts about doing research in climate - however, he and his denier friends are clearly delighted to hear that some conference in India didn't get enough papers to go ahead. Or so they say. (Archived here.)

Meanwhile, there are lots and lots of scientists beavering away expanding our understanding of the climate and the earth and all its systems.

Just one more example: Anthony hasn't mentioned this new paper about his home state, California. It's from a team led by Patrick Gonzalez, of the U.S. National Park Service. The scientists found that wildfires (and deforestation) are contributing quite a bit more to greenhouse emissions than previously known.

This has implications for Australia. The current government is making a big song and dance about carbon sequestration, paying farmers to keep carbon in the soil and vegetation. Many of us are very skeptical that it will bring the results the government is looking for. Mainly because of wildfires, drought and floods, all of which will limit the amount of carbon that can be sequestered. Also because of the immense difficulty and cost of trying to work out and monitor whether the people who will be paid to sequester carbon are in fact doing so, over the medium to longer term.

Here is a press release about the California study, from

A new study quantifying the amount of carbon stored and released through California forests and wildlands finds that wildfires and deforestation are contributing more than expected to the state's greenhouse gas emissions.
The findings, published online in the journal Forest Ecology and Management, came from a collaborative project led by the National Park Service and the University of California, Berkeley. The results could have implications for California's efforts to meet goals mandated by the state Global Warming Solutions Act, or AB 32, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020. The bill, which passed in 2006, assumed no net emissions for wildland ecosystems by 2020.
The researchers noted that the information available at the time the bill was passed may have underestimated the release of carbon through landmass conversions and wildfires, which are projected to increase in intensity in the western United States due to climate change. The authors pointed out that California is one of the few jurisdictions in the world to set mandatory greenhouse gas emissions targets.
"Determining the balance between carbon storage and emissions is essential for tracking the role of ecosystems in climate change. Growing vegetation naturally removes carbon from the atmosphere, reducing the magnitude of climate change," said study lead author Patrick Gonzalez, the National Park Service climate change scientist. "Conversely, burned or dead vegetation releases carbon into the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change."
Gonzalez worked with forest ecologist John Battles, a professor in UC Berkeley's Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management and the principal investigator on the project to quantify carbon storage and emissions in the state's wildlands.
The study, funded by the California Air Resources Board, used 2001-2010 data from multiple public sources, including plot-level carbon stocks from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Inventory and Assessment Program and U.S. Landfire remote sensing data of vegetation at a 30-meter spatial resolution.
The analysis confirmed that California's forests are huge carbon reservoirs for the state. Previous research has found that redwood forests near Redwood National Park contain the most carbon per hectare on the ground of any ecosystem in the world. One hectare of redwood forest can store an amount of carbon equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions generated by more than 500 Americans. The giant sequoia forests of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National parks come in second.
Altogether, the forests and vegetation of state wildlands stored an estimated 850 million tons of carbon in 2010. However, those areas also accounted for approximately 69 million tons of carbon emitted between 2001 and 2010. Two-thirds of the carbon loss came from fires that burned just 6 percent of the area of wildlands in nine years. Annual carbon losses from forests and wildlands in California represent as much as 5 to 7 percent of state carbon emissions from all sectors between 2001 and 2010, according to the study.
"National parks and other protected areas clearly provide an important function in removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it," said Battles. "But we also know from previous research that a century of fire suppression has contributed to a potentially unsustainable buildup of vegetation. This buildup provides abundant fuel for fires that contribute to carbon emissions. Projections of more wildfires in the West mean that we need to account for this source of carbon emissions. Meeting the state greenhouse gas targets for 2020 might require a reconsideration of wildland management policies."
This research is among the latest examples of the long, productive partnership between UC Berkeley and the National Park Service, highlighted in the recent "Science for Parks, Parks for Science" summit commemorating the centennial of the National Park Service.

Reference and further reading

Patrick Gonzalez, John J. Battles, Brandon M. Collins, Timothy Robards, David S. Saah. "Aboveground live carbon stock changes of California wildland ecosystems, 2001–2010." Forest Ecology and Management, 2015; 348: 68 DOI: 10.1016/j.foreco.2015.03.040  (subs req'd)

Australian Government: Emissions Reduction Fund and the land sector - and an outline of the Permanence Obligations


  1. Big story out of Australia is that a major player in the coal generation game, AGL, wishes to do away with coal plants by 2050 in order to reduce greenhouse gases. Coal is still Australia's biggest export -- this will have big impact on the future economy and politics.

  2. It should be an interesting fire season here in CA. Things are very dry very early.

    1. Same thing up here in Oregon. It could be an ugly summer on the west coast of the USA.

    2. Same thing in Montana. It is likely that the whole west will have a very bad fire season.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. 'season'. Anyway, it has begun.

  3. The comments at WUWT seem to be becoming more and more painfully stupid with every day. This one struck me as particularly ironic:

    AntonyIndia April 18, 2015 at 7:58 am
    "Living as I do in the neighborhood of Bangalore it is not hard to understand why few graduate are attracted to climate studies: the regional climate has not changed for over 120 years."

    I'd have thought AnthonyCalifornia would have been certain to have countered that one with a complaint about the problems where he lives.

    But perhaps AnthonyIndia's memory after a long life of 120 years is a bit faulty: we might check with GISS.

    It seems that "the regional climate" has changed after all.


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