Climate and forest fires. Peat fires lead to significant carbon emissions

Rashid Alimov

Not only in Russia fires occurred this summer: in June a peat fire broke out in North Carolina (USA), in an area of 16,000 hectares. In North Carolina, peatlands occupy about 1300 square kilometers, the peat layer reaches 4.5 m. Figures abut square of peatland and drained peat areas in Russia even academicians couldn’t find in official sources in the “hot” period of summer 2010.

The New York Times observer Andrew Revkin cites comments by a researcher Guillermo Rein (University of Edinburgh, Scotland): "Peatlands are one of the largest reserves of terrestrial organic carbon (one third of the world’s soil carbon). There are 337 million hectares of peatlands within the circumpolar boreal region alone, containing 397 to 455 billion tons of carbon. This carbon pool plus that of other organic soils exceeds that of the world’s forests or the atmosphere. Peat fires have important implications for climate change. Warmer temperatures at high latitudes are already resulting more frequent Arctic fires, and unprecedented permafrost thaw is leaving large soil carbon pools exposed to smoldering fires for the fist time since ancient times. "

The researcher notes, that the only way to counter peat fires is increasing of water content in the peat layers.

Steven Apfelbaum, president of the firm Applied Ecological Services, states that "The fires in Russia this summer made headlines mostly because of the smoke, haze and human health effects in large metropolitan areas like Moscow. But there is a disturbing story behind this story. Most fires are burning peat that is tens of thousands of years old. These slow burning, smoldering fires don’t provide the dramatic photo ops that forest fires do."

Meanwhile, peat fires spew enormous amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and may be a significant contributor to global warming.

Apfelbaum notes, that the mere act of dewatering peat also allows peats to begin deteriorating and to release GHGs, much like when a compost pile of leaves and garden waste rots down. This process of deterioration, even in the absence of wildfires, is well known to many Midwestern U.S. farmers who crop peat soils.

The ways to combat fires are increasing water content in the layer and also mixing peat layers.

In Russia, a huge number of wetlands have been drained for peat extraction, now many of these areas are abandoned and become the most potentially dangerous for the fire - this is an additional threat to the environment, besides the fact that drainage leads to loss of biodiversity, shallowing of rivers, destruction of forest ecosystems.

The largest peat deposits are in Russia, Canada, Indonesia and the United States. Peatlands cover about 2% of the planet's surface and over the millennia have been a source of energy. World leader in peat production is Finland.

There is a possibility that heat, which exacerbated the problem of forest and peat fires this summer in Russia, had links to the consequences of climate change.

Russian Socio-Ecological Union believes that the problem of peat fires and forest fires in general should be seriously explored, taking into account Russian commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In Copenhagen, Russia declared its readiness to cut emissions by 15-25% compared with the 1990 level by 2020, preconditioned that the future agreement impies the role of Russian forests in reducing emissions. Russia believes that forests should be included in the new agreement because they absorb carbon dioxide. RSEU believes that Russia's boreal forest should be reflected in the new climate agreement on a par with tropical forests, and theses forests should be given considerable attention, as the largest natural carbon sinks. Climate change threatens boreal forests, and significant changes have been already observed at the current warming of 0.8 degrees Celsius. When warming increases up to +3-5 degrees these forests would face complete degradation.