A new study shows that fires may be a significant contributor to climate change.

The findings culminated from work by UCSB’s Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, and revealed that deforestation fires alone may release one-fifth of the carbon dioxide – a major factor of global climate change – that pollutes our atmosphere.

The National Science Foundation funded the study, which was published in the most recent edition of the journal Science.

David Bowman, a professor at the University of Tasmania and first author of the study, said in an e-mail that the study has made a crucial first step towards recognizing the role fire has in shaping climate.

However, both Bowman and Jennifer Balch – a postdoctoral candidate at UCSB and the co-lead author of the study – said their research is just a preliminary assessment of the effect of fire on the global climate and that the subject demands further investigation. Both authors said they will advise the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to include fire in its assessment of global warming.

Michael Osborne, a UCSB environmental studies and history of science professor, said the study fills an important gap in current knowledge about the global climate.

“The plea of the researchers to take into account how fires contribute to the atmosphere that is our global commons is good management, timely and right on target,” Osborne said.
According to Bowman, the study was based on the input of different fire experts and researchers in an effort to encourage broad analysis of fire as a factor of climate change.

“The focus of our study was to try to bring together all the different ways scholars have been thinking about fire in some unified, synthetic framework,” Bowman said.

Balch said the study is framed on three key fronts.

“The first message is that fire is a major actor on the planet, and it has been for a long time… ever since the first terrestrial plants arrived…,” Balch said. “The second one is that fire influences the climate system… Third, we have to accept fire’s role.”

The authors also found that large fires have huge economic, environmental and health consequences: For instance, during the 1997-1998 El Niño drought, fire damages in Southeast Asia cost approximately $9 billion. Additionally, the researchers found that fires change the ecology of vegetation and can produce more flammable vegetation, which could also lead to more fire.

Balch said her main concern is that infernos seem to sparking more and more often. With global temperatures increasing, she said, more droughts are likely to occur and subsequently more fires will release harmful carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

“The hard part is going to be adapting to changing fire activity,” Balch said. “There’s going to more fires in some areas and less in others.”

Balch and Bowman plan to expand on their research by addressing questions and gaps in their study.

“We have created a roadmap for future work,” Balch said.

But, as Bowman noted, the field remains a heated topic.

“Even when I am dead, I will still not fully understand this complicated subject,” Bowman said.