Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Smouldering mega-fires in the Earth system

I just gave the presentation "Smouldering mega-fires in the Earth system" at the conference Exploring the Mega-fire Reality, Florida State University. It went well very,  good questions (~8) from audience and great feedback. The abstract is below.

Smouldering mega-fires in the Earth system

Smouldering fires, the slow, low-temperature, flameless burning of organic matter release anually at a global scale the equivalent to ~15% of man-made carbon emissions. It accounts for the accidental burning of fossil fuels, including natural as well as antropogenic causes. Very large fires of organic matter (mostly in peatlands) have burnt since past millennia for long periods of time (months, years, decades; the longest continuously fires on Earth). Flaming forest fires have been the central focus of most research, but smouldering mega-fires are paramount to the Earth System and have received very little attention. Smouldering is the most persistent type of combustion phenomena; the easiest to ignite, and the most difficult to suppress. Peat fires propagate slowly (~1 mm/min) through organic layers of the ground and can reach depth >5 m when large cracks or a natural piping system exists. It is a 3-dimensional phenomena, spreading deep into the soil and over extensive areas of land. The depth of burn is given by the location of the inert layer, very moist layer (>125%MC) or firefighting attempts. Observed depths of burn reported in the literature range from 0.1 to 5 m, with the average around 0.5 m (=75 kg/m2 of fuel consumption). This is 40 to 90 times larger than flaming fires. In terms of fuel consumption, these are mega-fires. This is of great concern given that world peatlands contain more terrestrial carbon than the forests or the atmosphere. Compared to the natural carbon flux to the atmospherefrom from peatland degradation, smouldering fires is 3,000 times faster. These wildfires burn fossil fuels and thus are a carbon-positive fire phenomenon via soil moisture deficit and self-heating. Warmer temperatures at high latitudes are resulting in more frequent Artic fires and unprecedented permafrost thaw.

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