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New study shows impact of fires on public health

Burning of brush and other biomass is causing deaths and impacting climate change.
Burning of brush and other biomass is causing deaths and impacting climate change.
Photo by Oscar Siagian/Getty Images

Open burning of biomass and wildfires are causing premature deaths of up to 435,000 people a year according to a new study by Stanford Professor Mark Jacobson published July 30 in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres. Jacobsen found that found smoke from wildfires and open burning of biomass (plants and trees) is contributing more to climate change, and causing more mortalities, than previously stated. He said that five to ten percent of worldwide air pollution mortalities are due to biomass burning.

The good news, if there is any in a report like this, is that we can end much of this pollution by simply banning open burning of biomass. The pollution from wildfires is more difficult to deal with, however.

Jacobson calculated that 8.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution, or 18 percent, is caused by biomass burning. In addition to CO2, biomass burning produces black and brown carbon, which causes further warming. According to Jacobson, the planetary warming caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gases — including the warming caused by black and brown carbon — amounted to a temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius during the 20-year period in their computer simulation. Biomass burning accounts for about 0.4 degrees Celsius or more than 44 percent of the total.

Carbon pollution causes global warming

Carbon pollution is associated with global warming. Much of the carbon emissions are linked to human activity and in large part they are in the form of carbon dioxide gas (CO2). But other forms of carbon contribution got climate change include methane and the particles generated by fires – tiny bits of soot, called black carbon, and motes of associated substances, known as brown carbon.

When sunlight penetrates a water droplet containing black or brown carbon particles, Jacobson said, the carbon absorbs the light energy, creating heat and accelerating evaporation of the droplet. Carbon particles floating around in the spaces between the droplets also absorb scattered sunlight, converting it to heat. This causes the cloud to dissipate. Since clouds reflect sunlight, cloud dissipation causes more sunlight to transfer to the ground and seas, ultimately resulting in warmer ground and air temperatures, Jacobsen explained.

There is a snowball effect (pun intended) to the black and brown carbon being dumped into the sky. When carbon particles released from burning biomass settle on snow and ice, they cause further warming. “Ice and snow are white, and reflect sunlight very effectively,” Jacobson said. “But because carbon is dark it absorbs sunlight, causing snow and ice to melt at accelerated rates. That exposes dark soil and dark seas. And again, because those surfaces are dark, they absorb even more thermal energy from the sunlight, establishing an ongoing amplification process.”

This situation is being made worse by black carbon being spewed by ships. Our outsourced manufacturing economy means most goods are made in Asia and shipped long distances to the United States. This has drastically increased the amount of pollution from ships that travel the great circle route putting them near to the Arctic. In addition, melting ice has opened up previously frozen shipping lanes in the Arctic. This, along with the smoke from man-made and forest fires, have turned much of the snow and ice black meaning it is absorbing heat.

On August 5, White House Counselor to the President, John Podesta, sent a message called “The Cost of Inaction” to the White House email list, which stated that anthropogenic climate change is happening, climate change is contributing to wildfires, and waiting to act on climate change is increasing economic costs to communities threatened by wildfires. Podesta said, “Make no mistake: The cost of inaction on wildfires and climate change is too high a price for Americans to pay, particularly when we have a chance to address this right now.”

Most things that we need to do to reverse this trend take time and cost money. Banning open burning is something governments from Colorado, to the federal government, to governments of other countries could do right now. The impact would be tremendous. If that biomass were composted, it would also help agriculture, and reduce the amount of man-made fertilizer that is causing the deadly algae blooms in Lake Erie.

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