NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


August 15, 2008

Every summer wildfires wreak havoc across Southern California, but this year, land managers and agencies have mobilized fire crews and equipment to stop the flames before they spread.  However, suppressing wildfires results in less carbon storage, says Scientific American. 

Researchers from the University of California, Irvine, compared the biomass of California's wild forests in the 1930s with those in the 1990s and found that:

  • The density in mid-altitude conifer forests increased by 34 percent during the 60 years that elapsed.
  • Yet, contrary to conventional wisdom -- that more trees mean additional carbon storage -- they found that the amount of carbon held actually decreased by 26 percent in the same period.

The logic behind the unanticipated findings comes down to the size of the trees that are being saved by fire suppression:

  • Over the past few decades firefighters have stopped the ground blazes common in California that would have otherwise wiped out the smaller trees and undergrowth; instead, these forests now have many small and midsize trees, adding to the forest's density.
  • Preserving the heftier trees is the easiest solution to augmenting carbon storage and allowing them to play their ecological roles -- they offer varied habitats and shape the land.
  • However, as the climate changes, it is probably better for the forest to get back to the way it used to be: thinner and less crowded. In fact, the national parks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains already use prescribed fire to thin forests.

Even though, burning or cutting down trees will release some carbon into the atmosphere, this method reduces the chances to lose all the carbon that could be lost due to a catastrophic wildfire, says Scientific American.

Source: Keren Blankfeld Schultz, "The Puzzling Inferno," Scientific American, August 2008.

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