The carbon bomb. Were the recent wild fires in California a sign of global warming? Did you know that the whole American West is tinder, ready to burn?
Today we start with California, but then discover the whole Rocky mountain chain houses vast dead forests, waiting to go up in smoke. They will add more greenhouse gases than the humans who live there.
But the top of the world is already on fire. In the November issue of the journal “Nature,” a team from the University of Wisconsin published a paper, calculating the carbon dioxide swirling up from the Canadian North. There, in the boreal forest stretching across the country, state-sized forest fires have been raging, unreported, and un-opposed.
As you know, scientists talk of global temperature rising. But the heating is uneven, and is hitting Canada, and Russia, much harder. Ten degrees above normal is becoming the normal. Forests are baking dry in the heat, waiting for the next lightening storm to ignite them.
Rainfall patterns have changed. And warmer winters released the Mountain Pine Bark Beetle into a whole new range of mountains in British Columbia. Authorities next door are burning their own forests, when they suspect the Beetle has arrived. They are trying to stop the infection of all the pines in the endless boreal forest that stretches across Canada’s North. No one really believes the Beetle can be stopped by anything, other than a return to the deep cold winters of the 1970’s. And no one believes we’ll ever get back to the climate we were born in.
Dr. Tom Gower says Canada’s boreal forests are no longer a carbon sink. They are a net source of global warming gases. We’ll interview him.
But first, I want to play a recording I made last summer, at the Climate Change Despair and Empowerment Road Show 2007, in Vancouver. American Pat Rasmussen will tell us how a forest activist became a climate activist as well.
Who can say it better, than Midnight Oil. That band played in the infamous “Black Hole”, among the giant stumps in a clear-cut former forest, in Clayoquot Sound, the last home of the island old growth, on the far Pacific coast of Canada. Hundreds were later arrested in protests, and a huge crowd of activists surrounded the band.
Into the dark, crowded gash in the woods, they sang…
[Song: “Beds Are Burning” by Midnight Oil]
From her base in Washington State, Pat Rasmussen watches world forests. She is a vital link between a number of groups, trying to save six temperate rainforests of the world. Her official title is Coordinator of the World Temperate Rainforest Network.
Pat is one of those activists who knows, and feels what she knows. It bothers her that the trees of the West are dying in waves. That satellites show browning over massive swathes where green should be. That life goes on as usual, for the latte drinkers, who don’t realize the coming fires could change their lives forever.
We’ll get to the recent record fires in California. The dead forests of British Columbia. The hidden great fires in Canada’s North.
But let’s tune into the evolution of forest activists, as global warming heats up the mix. Here is Pat Rasmussen, at the Climate Change Despair and Empowerment Road Show 2007, recorded by Radio Ecoshock.
[Pat Rasmussen talk]
That was Washington State forest activist Pat Rasmussen, speaking in Vancouver on August 15th, 2007. You can hear the Australian speaker from this Climate Roadshow, Kelly Tudhope, in the Radio Ecoshock show for August 24th, 2007. Find that in our program archive at www.ecoshock.org/cfro.html Both women gave moving speeches, that activated the crowd.
This is Radio Ecoshock, and I’m your host, Alex Smith.
UNREPORTED WILD FIRES IN CANADA’S NORTH
We’ve all heard about the California wild fires. The TV footage was riveting. Nothing human could stop those wind-fueled blazes, throwing fist-sized balls of fire, for miles in the air.
But no one covers the horrendous wild fires burning across the top of Canada. Even Canadian TV doesn’t bother with these blazes easily visible from space. Deep in our cities, with vision limited to the flying range of news helicopters, we don’t even know these fires exist.
And yet, they may tip the planet’s ecosphere into a new hot state, whether we know it or not.
Our special guest today is Dr. Tom Gower, from the University of Wisconsin/Madison. Dr. Gower has spend years and years in northern Manitoba province, studying that hardy mix of trees that blanket Canada’s north.
Fires are just a fact of life for this mass of green, just below the cold and treeless Tundra. Forests burn and regenerate. These tree species have evolved to expect fire. Some have cones designed to replant themselves after a conflagration.
Now, according to satellite data, the fire season is longer, and much worse, than it was even two decades ago. The natural cycle has apparently been interrupted. The forests are burning much more than normal – so much, that according to Tom Gower, we can no longer count Canada’s boreal forest as a carbon sink. Much more carbon is being released from this continent-sized forest, than the trees can capture.
Why is this important? Scientific models, the ones that predict climate change, have presumed that the great Canadian forest would accumulate more carbon. The trees should be stimulated by the extra carbon dioxide, the theory went. As humans produced more carbon, the boreal “lungs” as they have been called, would collect and store more carbon. Like a buffer. Scientists call it a carbon sink.
Now, a paper published in the prestigious journal “Nature”, on November 1st, 2007, by Dr. Tom Gower and his team, claims that theory is not working out. Fires are the wild card, turning this carbon sink, into a carbon source.
Let’s go to the interview.
That was Dr. Tom Gower, lead author of a new article in the journal “Nature” for November 1st, 2007.
We’ve heard other voices about the possibility of mass die off in the boreal forest. Our earlier guest, Pat Rasmussen wrote about it the Seattle Intelligencer for August 25th, 2006. For example, Rasmussen writes:
” In northern Canada, forests are showing signs of heat stress. Tracking forest changes between 1982 and 2003 using satellite data, Scott Goetz, an ecologist at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, found that a wide swath of the northern forest was getting browner, not greener as he had expected. Goetz believes this is some of the first evidence that high latitude forests may be in decline following an initial growth spurt associated with warming.
A massive Alaska yellow cedar die-off on 500,000 acres of land in Southeast Alaska has been documented by the US Forest Service. Scientists investigating the dramatic decline in yellow cedar eliminated all other possible causes except climate change. Yellow cedars live in the higher latitudes and altitudes of the coastal temperate rainforest from Alaska to the Olympic Peninsula. The trees that are dying have been living there for up to 1,000 years, in a climate conducive to life.
Forests have an upper heating limit that they can tolerate. When heating goes beyond that limit, trees and other plants go into a rest state, a kind of hibernation, where they rest until conditions might improve. In that state they do not convert carbon to oxygen. Further stressed, they die.”
That was a quote from Pat Rasmussen, Coordinator of the World Temperate Rainforest Network, writing in the Seattle Times.
I’m Alex Smith, reporting for Radio Ecoshock.
CALIFORNIA WILDFIRES & CLIMATE CHANGE
That clip, and one you heard at the beginning of the show, are from the famous news program “60 minutes.”
You can turn up your air conditioner, and hold on, but the forests of the world are already morphing, migrating, or dying from global warming. In the first part of this Radio Ecoshock special, we heard from Dr. Tom Gower, author of a new paper in the journal “Nature”, saying wild fires in the Canadian North are lurching toward a state of growing carbon emissions. World Temperate networker Pat Rasmussen explained how northern and western forests are suffering.
What about the California wild fires, so vividly covered by the mass media machine? Were they caused by an evil arsonist, rampant expansion of suburbia, or climate change?
The Los Angeles Times was quick out of the gate to deny any link to climate change. The editor’s headline blared “Global warming not a factor in wildfires.” The actual article, by Alan Zarembo, an LA Times Staff Writer, in the October 25, 2007 edition, concludes that climate change is leading to massive fires in the West, but Southern California is an exception, of sorts.
Last year, a study in the journal Science found that fires burned seven times more land in federal forests from 1987 to 2003, than in the previous 17 years. That was mainly due to warmer spring and summer temperatures, and an earlier snow melt that extended the average fire season by over two months.
The same study made an exception for Southern California, where there was no increase in fire frequency, despite rising temperatures. Now we know there may be less frequent fires in California’s south – but they can be huge when they come.
The LA Times article quotes Tom Wordell, a specialist in wildfires, at the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho, saying:
“That is a fire-prone environment regardless of whether we are in a climate-change scenario.”
In fact, despite the editor’s twist of denial in the headline, the rest of the article goes on to describe how global warming is drying out the West.
The Christian Science Monitor was more balanced, saying “Experts are mixed as to whether climate change is responsible for recent fires.”
Taking the big picture, they note that record fires devastated Eastern Europe this summer. Large fires were reported in Australia and South America. In Russia, more than 14 million hectares were burned in Siberia this year alone.
In the case of Southern California, it’s probably too early to tell if this exact event was caused by climate change. Certainly, that wasn’t the only cause. As we heard in last week’s Radio Ecoshock program, water mis-management in the West is helping the continent dry out. And people are building in former forest lands, trying to get away from the concrete city jungle, or as part of the suburban sprawl climbing up the hillsides into nature.
We don’t yet understand the causes of the Santa Anna winds that drove this fire into a fury. Are these winds worse due to over-heating in the interior? Has the ocean system changed? We don’t know yet. But it sure looks like global warming, doesn’t it?
Mike Lee, of the Union Tribune newspaper, wrote on October 30th, “A projection last year by several academic and government scientists said the failure to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions could lead to 55 percent more large wildfires in California by the end of the century.
In addition, a 2006 study in Geophysical Research Letters, the publication of the American Geophysical Union, suggests that Santa Ana winds may occur more frequently in November and December as Southern California’s climate becomes warmer. In turn, that would heighten the risk of deadly blazes.”
Then there is Thomas Swetnam, director of the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona in Tucson. His 2006 study predicted much bigger, intense fires as global warming develops. He told the Los Angeles Times that such impacts are not 50 or 100 years away, but happening right now in forest fires.
But after the 60 Minutes feature “The Age of Mega-Fires”, scientists Thomas Swetnam and Anthony Westerling felt compelled to say there is no proven, direct link between higher temperatures and the recent Southern California fires. The rest of the West, sure, they said that’s set to burn, thanks to climate change. But we aren’t sure about this particular case…
Meanwhile, the California Air Resources Board reports that the greenhouse gases coming from the California fires in just one week is the equivalent to the yearly emissions of half a million cars. Associated Press reported the California fires emitted 8.7 million tons of carbon dioxide – more than the annual emissions of the state of Vermont.
Here is what we know for sure: 824,000 Californians were forced to flee for their lives.
The images you saw on television, from the world media headquarters of Southern California, are somewhere in your future. As the globe heats up, and huge strips of the former “temperate” zones suffer drought, insect infestation, and then fire – the resulting carbon dioxide could bomb civilization, everywhere, with rapid climate change.
Meanwhile, the San Jose Mercury News reported that one of the sections eliminated by the White House, from the testimony to the Senate Environment Committee, by Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control, was this:
“Forest fires are expected to increase in frequency, severity, distribution and duration.”
We aren’t even allowed to talk about it.
ROCKY MOUNTAINS DRYING OUT
Well, let’s leave Southern California, and move a little inland, to the case of the drying Rocky Mountains. Just as Dr. Tom Gower reported earlier in this program, another scientist at the University of California has been looking at unexpected impacts of climate change.
Dr. Lara Kueppers has been studying forests in the Rocky Mountains. In a BBC program in December of 2006, Dr. Kueppers warned that a combination of drying, and forest fires, could change forests from carbon gathering, to a major source of carbon emissions. The BBC blog says: “Lara’s work shows that with increasing temperatures the fungi and microbes in the forest floor actually speed up their respiration, so the over all effect of the forest is to give up more carbon than they can absorb.”
Here is a short clip from that interview:
[LARA KUEPPERS CLIP]
That was from the BBC program “Planet Earth Under Threat”, that was Professor Lara Kueppers, an Ecosystems Scientist from the University of California. The U.S. Department of Energy recently added a $2.9 million dollar grant to her research in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. She will try to determine whether some species will be able to adapt fast enough, to cope with rapid human-induced climate change.
BRITISH COLUMBIA READY TO BURN
Now we will move up the coast toward Canada, to the pine forests of British Columbia. The government there has released a year 2007 update to their report on “Timber Supply and the Mountain Pine Beetle Infestation.”
In 2003, the B.C. Ministry of Forests and Range estimates, 4.2 million hectares – that’s about 10 million acres – of forest was victimized by “red attack.” The trees turn red as they die from the Mountain Pine Bark Beetle. Then, they all go gray, dead gray.
By 2007, the kill jumped from 4.2 million hectares to 13 million hectares, or 32 million acres, of dead pines. Missing from the report? Any estimate of how much carbon will be released into the atmosphere from all these dead trees. In fact, despite B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell’s “greener-than-thou” climate announcements, climate impacts are not really mentioned in this government report at all.
The whole vision of this Pine Beetle update is about “merchantable timber” and the human economy. After all, the government itself is a major beneficiary of the forest industry, from stumpage fees and various taxes. It seems to me, the report is more about losing money, than about losing one of the great natural resources of the world.
GOVERNMENTS MUST START COUNTING WILD FIRE CARBON
This is another thing that drives me crazy about us humans. When governments propose their climate goals, or publish their emissions – they never include the huge carbon inputs from wild fires. Even though humans are causing the condition of drying, dying and burning forests – we don’t count the carbon that results.
It’s like cheating on an exam. But Nature doesn’t care about our book-keeping. As the British journalist George Monbiot points out, all that counts is the total amount of greenhouse gases that reach the atmosphere. If we really cared about saving the climate we know, governments would have to include the emissions coming from burning forests. If more of our forests burn, then we have to reduce our direct emissions even more, to compensate for all that extra carbon.
By this inexorable logic, California must take a few million more cars off the road, or close some power plants, to off-set the recent fires. British Columbia must include the inescapable climate loading from the coming fires, in future energy planning. If the interior of the province is going to blow up in a carbon bomb, maybe the government will have to stop building new highways.
We can’t fool Mother Nature. Not at all. All governments must re-do their carbon book-keeping, to include all greenhouse gases emanating from their part of the Earth, no matter what caused it. That is what real climate salvation demands.
I’ve queried several research people, in the British Columbia forest service, trying to get a straight answer to one of the key questions: just how much carbon could go into the atmosphere, from all these dead pine forests? Has no one asked the question? Is anyone encouraged to ask it?
British Columbia does have one of the best Canadian carbon calculators in Dr. Werner Kurz, at the Pacific Forestry Centre in Victoria. Unfortunately, I was unable to reach him in time for this program. But I did get this back-of-the-envelope guestimate from a brave scientist at the University of Northern B.C.
Essentially, he says, British Columbia emits about 68 Megatonnes, or 68 million tonnes, of carbon dioxide equivalent, every year. In 2003, the beetle killed wood, if it all burned, would emit about 111 Megatonnes a year, using government statistics. That number needs to be doubled now. The total carbon value of all the pines in B.C. might be 450 megatonnes – that is, at least six times the carbon that humans emit every year in the Province.
Of course, it won’t all burn, and it won’t all burn at once. The fires may burn for a decade or more. Calculations, about potential pine fires, are difficult. But, it does make the point, that human-induced global warming could emit more carbon in forest fires, than the direct greenhouse gases coming from our tail-pipes, smokestacks, and agri-business. The indirect carbon from forest fires may overwhelm our direct emissions. But we don’t count forest fire carbon, in government reports and promises.
Stay tuned for big fires, in Western Canada.
Is the world really burning up? Of course not. But it is heating up, and we can expect really wild fires, in many different parts of the globe. As forests burn, we lose more leafy green that was eating the carbon. And due to climate change, many of these forests will never return. The positive feedback loop is really very, very negative – not just for us, but for all the living things.
SO WHY DON’T WE CHANGE? – MONBIOT
Here is George Monbiot, the author of “Heat, How to Stop the Planet Burning.” This interview was recorded in October 2007, by howtoboilafrog.com, and posted on You Tube.
We’re not being asked to give up our lives, just our pollution. George Monbiot had a more radical suggestion, at the UK Climate Camp outside Heathrow Airport this past summer. I’ll play the clip for you now, even though the audio quality is poor, being recorded in a tent, complete with children and dogs. But listen carefully:
[MONBIOT CLIP ABOUT REDUCING EMISSIONS BY 130 %]
If we REALLY want to face reality – if we only have five years to adapt, as the top scientists say – then Monbiot is quite right. Not only do we need to cut our emissions, we need to quickly find a way to capture carbon, back out of the atmosphere. But that’s another show.
You can help the planet, if only just for a day, on November 23rd. That is “Buy Nothing Day.” For just one day, humans ask themselves to stop the great conveyor belt, that melts natural spaces into handbags, and over-sized vehicle tires.
Personally, I’ve learned how to go to a Mall, just to see humans, or to walk inside on a rainy day – and buy absolutely nothing.
Friday November 23rd is Buy Nothing Day
[buy nothing clip?]
Next week on Radio Ecoshock, we’ll drive our Cadillac Escalade right down Wall Street, to see who jumps out. As the banks melt down, along with American real estate, will the planet get a break? Would a depression be good for nature? Will a new American government have any money left by 2009, to spend on a new energy economy? Next week on Radio Ecoshock, tune in for “Buzz, Crash, Boom! The American Bust.”
I’m Alex Smith. Thanks for putting up with me.