Wildfires and Climate

How massive wildfires affect the climate system is anything but straightforward. In the far north, UC Irvine researchers have found large-scale forest burning might actually cool the region’s climate – while having no measurable effect on Earth’s climate as a whole. Northern landscapes denuded by wildfire, then covered with snow, reflect more sunlight back to space instead of absorbing it, bringing temperatures down. Meanwhile, in the southern hemisphere, the same research group found that even small shifts in ocean temperatures were linked to larger, more destructive fires months later in the Amazon rainforest.

Warmer ocean temperatures were followed by intensified drought conditions, which might have driven the larger fires. The research is revealing the often baffling relationship between forest burning and global warming; the group also examines the climatic effects of shifting emissions of methane, the second worst greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide.