Scientists determine cause behind huge Asian smoke cloud

Scientists determine the cause behind huge Asian smoke cloud

NOV 28, 2018 10:43 AM PST | WRITTEN BY Kathryn DeMuth Sullivan

New research published recently in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences presents surprising findings concerning the origins of the smoke cloud that hung over Southeast Asia for several months in 2015. The smoke, which came from wildfires that spread throughout Indonesia in 2016 due to a severe El Nino-driven drought, stayed clouding the region throughout the summer and fall of 2015. Scientists have now determined that the smoke contained carbon from plants that were alive during the Middle Ages, as a result of the burning of ancient peat.

“Our research shows that almost all of the smoke emissions originated from the burning of Holocene-aged peat,” said first author Elizabeth Wiggins, a postdoctoral research fellow at NASA’s Langley Research Center. “Although this peat has functioned as a massive terrestrial carbon storage reservoir over the last several thousand years, it is now a significant source of carbon to the atmosphere.”

The researchers were able to determine the origin of the smoke through isotope dating of smoke particles’ carbon atoms. After determining that the average particle was as old as 800 years, the scientists cross-analyzed the data with models of the wind-driven movement of smoke plumes and were able to pinpoint that the smoke came from burning peat on Borneo and Sumatra of Indonesia.

“These are the first direct measurements showing the smoke originated from the combustion of peat layers that are hundreds to thousands of years old,” said study co-author James Randerson. “Farmers drain the peats because waterlogged soils are bad for growing oil palms and other crops, and they seek to burn off surface layers to get to the mineral soil below.”

Peatlands are some of the most effective carbon sinks, holding more carbon all of the living biomass of the Amazon rainforest. The release of this huge amount of carbon into the atmosphere has grim consequences for the world as a whole, not just the orangutans and Sumatran tigers that lost their habitat.

The authors want to drive home one specific point from their findings: “This was all human-driven,” Randerson said. “Such fires help a small part of the population, but the costs for people far away in other cities in the region are enormous.” In order to preserve peatlands and thus keep huge quantities of carbon out of the atmosphere, we must find another way to pursue agriculture. Burning is no longer an option. “We need to identify more sustainable agricultural solutions in which we preserve tropical forests and peatlands to maintain all of these benefits while at the same time enhancing food security,” co-author Claudia Czimczik said.


The Sordid History of Forest Service Fire Data

The Sordid History of Forest Service Fire Data

by Randal OToole 09/27/2018


The latest wildfire situation report indicates that about 7.3 million acres have burned to date this year. That’s about 1.2 million acres less than this same date last year, but about 1.5 million acres more than the ten-year average and a lot more than the average in the 1950s and 1960s, which was about 3.9 million acres a year.Some people use the data behind this chart to argue against anthropogenic climate change. The problem is that the data before about 1955 are a lie. Click image to go to the source data.

While some blame the increase in acres burned on human-caused climate change, skeptics of anthropogenic warming have pointed out that, according to the official records, far more acres burned in the 1930s — close to 40 million acres a year — than in any recent decade. The 1930s were indeed a decade of unusually bad droughts that can’t be blamed on anthropogenic climate change.

While the Antiplanner isn’t persuaded that recent fires are evidence of human-caused global warming, reports of acres burned from before about 1955 are not evidence of the opposite for a simple reason: the Forest Service lied. While the Antiplanner has alluded to this before, it’s important to tell the full story so that skeptics of climate change don’t reduce their credibility by using erroneous data.

The story begins in 1908, when Congress passed the Forest Fires Emergency Funds Act, authorizing the Forest Service to use whatever funds were available from any part of its budget to put out wildfires, with the promise that Congress would reimburse those funds. As far as I know, this is the only time any democratically elected government has given a blank check to any government agency; even in wartime, the Defense Department has to live within a budget set by Congress.

This law was tested just two years later with the Big Burn of 1910, which killed 87 people as it burned 3 million acres in the northern Rocky Mountains. Congress reimbursed the funds the Forest Service spent trying (with little success) to put out the fires, but — more important — a whole generation of Forest Service leaders learned from this fire that all forest fires were bad.

In 1924, Congress passed the Clarke-McNary Act, which allowed the Forest Service with (i.e., provide funds to) “appropriate officials of the various states or other suitable agencies” in developing “systems of forest fire prevention and suppression.” The Forest Service used its financial muscle to encourage states to form fire protection districts.

This led to a conflict over the science of fire that is well documented in a 1962 book titled Fire and Water: Scientific Heresy in the Forest Service. Owners of southern pine forests believed that they needed to burn the underbrush in their forests every few years or the brush would build up, creating the fuels for uncontrollable wildfires. But the mulish Forest Service insisted that all fires were bad, so it refused to fund fire protection districts in any state that allowed prescribed burning.

The Forest Service’s stubborn attitude may have come about because most national forests were in the West, where fuel build-up was slower and in many forests didn’t lead to serious wildfire problems. But it was also a public relations problem: after convincing Congress that fire was so threatening that it deserved a blank check, the Forest Service didn’t want to dilute the message by setting fires itself.

When a state refused to ban prescribed fire, the Forest Service responded by counting all fires in that state, prescribed or wild, as wildfires. Many southern landowners believed they needed to burn their forests every four or five years, so perhaps 20 percent of forests would be burned each year, compared with less than 1 percent of forests burned through actual wildfires. Thus, counting the prescribed fires greatly inflated the total number of acres burned.

The Forest Service reluctantly and with little publicity began to reverse its anti-prescribed-fire policy in the late 1930s. After the war, the agency publicly agreed to provide fire funding to states that allowed prescribed burning. As southern states joined the cooperative program one by one, the Forest Service stopped counting prescribed burns in those states as wildfires. This explains the steady decline in acres burned from about 1946 to 1956.

There were some big fires in the West in the 1930s that were not prescribed fires. I’m pretty sure that if someone made a chart like the one shown above for just the eleven contiguous western states, it would still show a lot more acres burned in real wildfires in the 1930s than any decade since — though not by as big a margin as when southern prescribed fires are counted. The above chart should not be used to show that fires were worse in the 1930s than today, however, because it is based on a lie derived from the Forest Service’s long refusal to accept the science behind prescribed burning.

This piece first appeared on The Antiplanner.

Randal O’Toole ( is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and author of the new book, Romance of the Rails: Why the Passenger Trains We Love Are Not the Transportation We Need, which will be released by the Cato Institute on October 10.

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Future without intact forests?

Future without intact forests?

Despite a decades-long effort to halt deforestation, nearly 10 percent of undisturbed forests have been fragmented, degraded or simply chopped down since 2000, according to the analysis of satellite imagery.

Average daily loss over the first 17 years of this century was more than 200 square kilometers.

“Degradation of intact forest represents a global tragedy, as we are systematically destroying a crucial foundation of climate stability,” said Frances Seymour, a senior distinguished fellow at the World Resources Institute (WRI), and a contributor to the research, presented this week at a conference in Oxford.

“Forests are the only safe, natural, proven and affordable infrastructure we have for capturing and storing carbon.”

The findings come as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and five major conservation organizations launched a five-year plan, Nature4Climate, to better leverage land use in reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that drive global warming.

“Thirty-seven percent of what is needed to stay below two degrees Celsius” – the cornerstone goal of the 196-nation Paris Agreement – “can be provided by land”, said Andrew Steer, WRI president, and CEO. “But only three percent of the public funding for mitigation goes to land and forest issues – that needs to change.”

Beyond climate, the last forest frontiers play a critical role in maintaining biodiversity, weather stability, clean air, and water quality. Some 500 million people worldwide depend directly on forests for their livelihoods.

A future without intact forests?

So-called intact forest landscapes – which can include wetlands and natural grass pastures – are defined as areas of at least 500 square kilometers with no visible evidence in satellite images of large-scale human use.

That means no roads, industrial agriculture, mines, railways, canals or transmission lines.

As of January 2017, there were about 11.6 million square kilometers of forests worldwide that still fit these criteria. From 2014 to 2016, that area declined by more than 87,000 square kilometers each year.

“Many countries may lose all their forest wildlands in the next 15 to 20 years,” Peter Potapov, an associate professor at the University of Maryland and lead scientist for the research, said.

On current trends, intact forests will disappear by 2030 in Paraguay, Laos, and Equatorial Guinea, and by 2040 in Cambodia, the Central African Republic, Nicaragua, Myanmar, and Angola.

“There could come a point in the future where no areas in the world qualify as ‘intact’ anymore,” said Tom Evans, director for forest conservation and climate mitigation at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

“It is certainly worrying.”

In tropical countries, the main causes of virgin forest loss are conversion to agriculture and logging. In Canada and the United States, fire is the main culprit, while in Russia and Australia, the destruction has been driven by fires, mining, and energy extraction.
Compared to annual declines during the period 2000-2013, Russia lost, on average, 90 percent more each year from 2014 to 2016. For Indonesia, the increase was 62 percent, and for Brazil, it was 16 percent.

Protected areas

The new results are based on a worldwide analysis of satellite imagery, built on a study first done in 2008 and repeated in 2013.

“The high-resolution data, like the one collected by the Landsat program, allows us to detect human-caused alteration and fragmentation of forest wildlands,” Potapov said.

Presented at the Intact Forests in the 21st Century conference at Oxford University, the finding will be submitted for peer-reviewed publication, said Potapov, who delivered a keynote to the three-day gathering.

Addressing colleagues from around the world, Potapov also challenged the effectiveness of a global voluntary certification system.

Set up in 1994 and backed by green groups such as the World Wildlife Fund, the self-stated mission of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is to “promote environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable management of the world’s forests”.

Many forest-products carry the FSC label, designed to reassure eco-conscious consumers.

But approximately half of all intact forest landscapes inside FSC-certified concessions were lost from 2000 to 2016 in Gabon and the Republic of Congo, the new data showed. In Cameroon, about 90 percent of FSC-monitored forest wildlands disappeared.
“FSC is an effective mechanism to fragment and degrade remaining intact forest landscapes, not a tool for their protection,” Potapov said.

National and regional parks have helped to slow the rate of decline.

The chances of forest loss were found to be three times higher outside protected areas than inside them, the researchers reported.

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Binh Thuan faces high risk of forest fires

Binh Thuan faces a high risk of forest fires


Binh Thuan (VNA) – Over 150,000 hectares of forests in the south-central coastal province of Binh Thuan are now on high alert for fires as it is in the peak of the dry season, according to the provincial Forestry Management Department on February 27.

Heat waves put forests in Tuy Phong, Bac Binh, Ham Thuan Nam, Ham Thuan Bac, Ham Tan districts, La Gi township, Phan Thiet City in a high fire alert.

The province, where the lowest rainfall is recorded in the country, has over 370 hectares of forests.

According to the agency, numerous preventive measures have been taken in each locality and by all relevant bodies during the dry season, which begins in November and ends in April every year.

Forest protection teams have been set up at all levels, involving more than 1,000 people, while 150 forest rangers have been trained on forest fire prevention.

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