Forest Fires If a Tree Dries Out in the Forest

As we discuss in Chapter 2, forests are critical in keeping excess carbon dioxide out of our atmosphere. Unfortunately, the number of forest fires is greatly increasing, and global warming is the cause.

The increase in hot, dry weather means dryer forests, ideal fodder for fire. Forest fires around the world last longer and burn with more intensity than previously recorded. The area of land burned by wildfires has surged in the past 30 years across North America. The IPCC reports that a one-degree Celsius rise (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) in average temperatures can increase the length of the fire season in northern Asia by 30 percent.

These fires have serious consequences, not only for the environment, but also for infrastructure. Major wildfires in Canberra, Australia, in 2003 ruined 500 houses and cost a hefty 261 million dollars (U.S.) in damage alone. The 2007 fires across the state of California destroyed 1,500 homes. The IPCC expects forest fires to increase while temperatures continue to rise and some areas experience reduced rainfall.

Warmer weather also means more pine beetles in the western U.S. and Canada. The pine beetle is an insect that has a special talent for turning a forest into firewood. Previously, pine beetles didn't survive the winter. Now, their numbers grow annually. (See Chapter 8 to get better acquainted with pine beetles.)

The increasing numbers of pine beetles have significantly affected interior British Columbia, where Zoe grew up. The Montane forest, where lodgepole pine predominates, has lost an area of forest the size of two Swedens because of climate-induced beetle attacks.

In fact, because of both fire and increased insect damage, forests in Canada ceased to be a net sink (refer to Chapter 2) for carbon in the mid-1970s. Canada's forests still hold millions of tons of carbon, but on an annual basis, these forests now give off more carbon than they suck in. Adding to this vicious cycle, forest fires pump carbon dioxide into the air when the wood burns and releases the gas.

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