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California Wildfires Release More Greenhouse Gases Than Thought

Apr 17, 2015 05:44 PM EDT

(Photo : Pixabay)

It turns out that California wildfires release more greenhouse gases than previously thought, according to new research.

According to the study, from 2001-2010, annual carbon losses from forests and wildlands in California represented as much as five to seven percent of state carbon emissions.

Interestingly, the state's Global Warming Solutions Act, or AB 32, says that by the year 2020 California has to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels. But these findings, published in the journal Forest Ecology and Management, suggest that goal may be easier said than done.

"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," lead author Patrick Gonzalez from the National Park Service said in a statement. "Conversely, burned or dead vegetation releases carbon into the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change."

When the bill was passed in 2006, researchers assumed no net emissions for wildland ecosystems by 2020. But that does not seem to be the case. In fact, carbon emissions through landmass conversions and wildfires are expected to increase in intensity in the western United States due to climate change.

What's more, US wildfires spanning across the West, not just in California, are getting bigger and more frequent. Since 1984, wildfires ranging from Nebraska to California have consumed land at a rate of 90,000 acres a year - that's an area the size of Las Vegas.

And most areas that experienced these fiery conditions were severely affected by drought. That's bad news for California, considering that it's in the midst of the worst drought in a millennium. This puts the Golden State at an increased risk for more destructive, carbon-emitting wildfires.

California is home to many forests. Its famous redwood forests near Redwood National Park are its biggest carbon reservoirs, containing the most carbon per hectare of land of any ecosystem in the world (1 hectare= 2.47 acres). In fact, 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.

Pictured: The darker green areas in the map on the left show regions in the state that store more carbon. In the map on the right, brown areas show carbon losses, mainly due to fires, while green areas show carbon gains.
(Photo : Patrick Gonzalez, National Park Service) Pictured: The darker green areas in the map on the left show regions in the state that store more carbon. In the map on the right, brown areas show carbon losses, mainly due to fires, while green areas show carbon gains.

While California vegetation and forests, such as redwoods and sequoias, did manage to store an estimated 850 million tons of carbon in 2010, they also released a great deal of carbon into the atmosphere.

According to an analysis by researchers with the National Park Service and the University of California, Berkeley, those areas also accounted for approximately 69 million tons of carbon emitted between 2001 and 2010.

In addition, two thirds of the carbon loss came from fires that burned just six percent of the area of wildlands in nine years.

"National parks and other protected areas clearly provide an important function in removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it," added forest ecologist John 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."

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