Wild-Fire Smoke from Recent Forest Fires

wildfire smoke

By Wayne Lanier

Wildfires, as everyone knows, bring devastation.  The fires destroy homes and lay waste to forests.  Wildfire smoke exacerbates the damage.

Forests are a major natural environmental component that removes the “greenhouse gas,” carbon dioxide (CO2), from the atmosphere. Trees replenishes the oxygen we breathe as they sequester CO2.

Jim Ware highlighted the “Plant for the Planet” initiative on this blog Nov. 13th.  It was also published in the Rossmoor News on Aug. 21st.  The project’s goal is to “mass produce” more forests.”

The “Plant for the Planet” project is encouraging. It is the only way to increase the area and impact of our world’s natural CO2 absorbers.

Ocean and Pond Carbon Dioxide Absorbers

The number one (#1) major natural CO2 absorber is the microbe Prochlorococcus.  It is the single most abundant organism on earth.  Prochloroccus outweighs all other creatures combined. These microscopic photosynthetic bacteria occupy the top 100-meters of all the world’s oceans. When they die, they sink to the deep oceans and are normally converted to undersea oil and coal deposits.

The second largest CO2 absorbers are Cyanobacterial mats.  These mats live in the world’s shallow shoreline salt ponds, such as those in the Don Edwards National Wildlife refuge, and in peat bogs. When these organisms die, they sink to the pond bottom. The mats are successively converted to peat and then, under greater pressure, to coal and oil deposits.

With rational conservation, ocean pollution can be controlled and stopped. We can also preserve the shallow ponds and peat bogs. We can preserve the resulting carbon deposits by ending the burning of oil and coal and peat. It is very difficult, however, to significantly increase either of these carbon sinks.

Lingering Effects of Forest Fire Smoke

wildfire smoke
Black carbon smoke rises higher in the stratosphere, lingering there for months.

In the past decade, we have witnessed an increase in forest fires.  Fires in western Canada and western American states have grown size and intensity. Yet as impressive as the fires have been, the smoke produced is a greater problem.

In 2018, smoke from the Camp Fire blanketed wide areas of Northern California.  The smoke limited visibility throughout the East Bay.  Health officials advised people to wear masks and avoid strenuous outdoor exercise.

The smoke hung around for weeks, until the rains cleared the sky.  But even with the sky clear, the smoke lingers “up there,” in the atmosphere, for months.  To understand this, we need to briefly “talk smoke.”

Consider the study of 2017 western Canadian and the U.S. Pacific northwest wildfires.  It was published in Science, the journal of the American Society for the Advancement of Science, in August, 2019 https://science.sciencemag.org/content/365/6453/587.

Smoke from forest fires is composed of various compounds of carbon. Complete and exact identification of all of these compounds requires sophisticated instruments. A general analysis of the environmental impact of the smoke from these fires requires examining only two categories: simple “black” carbon smoke and complex organic “brown” carbon smoke.

Brown carbon in the smoke from forest fires has a short lifetime.  Its complex organic compounds break down in a matter of hours or days. However, the organic compounds in brown carbon are toxic to humans and wildlife. They are, therefore, both an environmental and a human health problem. However, the high molecular weight of this smoke limits the extent with which it reaches the upper atmosphere and so limits the area over which it spreads.

Black Carbon Compromises Photosynthesis

wildfire smoke
Forest fires reduce the ability of trees and plant to perform photosynthesis

Simpler black carbon, as either elemental carbon or as CO2. It is also far more persistent and its light absorption is also much greater. Black carbon rises into the upper atmosphere, persisting for months in the stratosphere. It also reduces overall sunlight reaching the earth during much of that time.

Oddly, this reduction of sunlight does not reduce the effects of solar climate warming. The data are complex, but the “bottom line” is black smoke actually increases climate warming. First, by reducing the uptake of atmospheric CO2 through destruction of the forest. Secondly, by shading the existing forests, ponds and oceans, it also reduces their uptake of CO2.

The Bottom Line

Business leaders often talk about the “bottom line,” but they only mean the line of their own “profit.” It would be great if their “profit” meant profit for the entire world economy from top to bottom. Invariably, it does not.

For example, landowners, particularly corporate landowners, in South America, Africa and some Asian countries have increasingly found it profitable to destroy forests by deliberately setting fires.  The practice clears the forest and creates more extensive farmland. They then “profit” by large-scale mechanized farming of the cleared land, but the ecology of the Earth suffers greatly in the process.

This deliberate, and thoughtless, forest burning continues to drive global warming because absolutely no farmland anywhere in the world achieves the per acre uptake of CO2 occurring in a natural forest, or in a proposed “Plant for the Planet” forest, or in the salt marsh or in the open ocean. The South American, African, and Asian countries in which this destruction takes place often lack the political structure necessary to restrict or control deliberate forest burning by powerful business interests. So, through another form of short-sighted business greed, we continue to drive global warming.

As I write this, I notice a news reporting South American forests continue to burn. Sadly, Brazil has rejected aid from France.

Courtesy of Rossmoor News, Sept. 4, 2019. Email Wayne Lanier, PhD, at wayne2841nw22@icloud.com

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