The sprawling forests of the northern hemisphere which extend from China and Siberia to Canada and Alaska are in danger of becoming a gigantic source of carbon dioxide rather than being a major “sink” that helps to offset man-made emissions of the greenhouse gas.
Two studies published today show that the increase in forest fires in the boreal forests – the second largest forests after tropical rainforests – have weakened one of the earth’s greatest terrestrial sinks of carbon dioxide.
One of the studies showed that in some years, forest fires in the US result in more carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere over the space of a couple of months than the entire annual emissions coming from cars and energy production of a typical US state.
A second study found that, over a 60-year period, the risk of forest fires in 1 million sq kms of Canadian wilderness had increased significantly, largely as a result of drier conditions caused by global warming and climate change.
Tom Gower, professor of forest ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said his study showed that fires had a greater impact on overall carbon emissions from boreal forests during the 60-year period than other factors such as rainfall, yet climate was at the heart of the issue. “Climate change is what’s causing the fire changes,” Professor Gower said.
Yet another crucial indicator that another of the earth’s mechanisms to absorb carbon is in real trouble.