BOULDER--The use of prescribed burns to manage Western forests may help the United States reduce its carbon footprint. A new study finds that such burns, often used by forest managers to reduce underbrush and protect bigger trees, release substantially less carbon dioxide emissions than wildfires of the same size.
"It appears that prescribed burns can be an important piece of a climate change strategy," says Christine Wiedinmyer, a scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and lead author of the new study. "If we reintroduce fires into our ecosystems, we may be able to protect larger trees and significantly reduce the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere by major wildfires."
The study is being published this week in Environmental Science and Technology. It was funded by the National Science Foundation, NCAR's sponsor.
Drawing on satellite observations and computer models of emissions, the researchers concluded that widespread prescribed burns can reduce fire emissions of carbon dioxide in the West by an average of 18 to 25 percent, and by as much as 60 percent in certain forest systems.
Wildfires often destroy large trees that store significant amounts of carbon. Prescribed fires are designed to burn underbrush and small trees, which store less carbon. By clearing out the underbrush, these controlled burns reduce the chances of subsequent high-severity wildfires, thereby protecting large trees and keeping more carbon locked up in the forest.
"When fire comes more frequently, it's less severe and causes lower tree mortality," says Matthew Hurteau of Northern Arizona University, the study's co-author. "Fire protects trees by clearing out the fuel that builds up in the forest."
The importance of trees
Forests have emerged as important factors in climate change. Trees store, or sequester, significant amounts of carbon, thereby helping offset the large amou
|Contact: David Hosansky|
National Center for Atmospheric Research/University Corporation for Atmospheric Research