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El Nino Fires A Key Source Of Greenhouse Gases 62

Posted by timothy
from the where-there's-smoke-there's-CO2 dept.
core plexus writes "Science Daily has an interesting article suggesting that El Nino-related fires may be a significant source of 'Greenhouse Gases.' By combining satellite data and measurements of atmospheric gases, they have quantified for the first time the amount of greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide and methane, emitted by these fires. In addition, the scientists determined that almost all of the increased levels of methane measured during 1997 and 1998 can be attributed to the worldwide fires at the time, underscoring the impact El Nino has on methane emissions."
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El Nino Fires A Key Source Of Greenhouse Gases

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  • Aren't the primary sources of greenhouse gases the automobile and airliner.
    • by Anonymous Coward
      A quick search says transportation is the top producer of green house gasses, with a few anti-global warming people saying it's agriculture.

      I guess anti-global warming isn't really a good name for the people who believe there's no danger in climate change.

    • I don't have the skills for this so, engineers listen up: Find out what size Forest fire equals a 5.7 Liter engine running at avg 3400 RPM (perhaps a bit high, I know so tweak it) in greenhouse gas output for the same period of time. For example only: 1 acre of forest fire for 10 engines for the fist 30 mins etc.. Maybe this should be an "Ask Slashdot".
  • Dammit! (Score:5, Funny)

    by GypC (7592) on Tuesday January 06, 2004 @07:16PM (#7897862) Homepage Journal

    There has to be some way that it is George W. Bush's fault...


    • Yeah, the earth will never be protected until we get off of this oil based economy.

      Thats why we need to move to nuclear power as soon as possible. All real environmentalists agree!

      Well, except for those who think we should move to a coal based economy.

      Ok, well, everyone agrees we need to get rid of this oil based economy! And hey, if we weren't on one, George Bush wouldn't be our president!

      Oh, and power to the people! That means you don't get to make private agreements--- the government must regulate
    • This was modded interesting? What kind of crack are the mods on?

      Funny I wouldn't agree with but could at least see...
    • Actually, there is. The fires in SoCal *would* have been fought by National Guardsmen if they weren't human bait in Iraq. Many of these guys and gals are firefighters by trade, and many more are at the ready to be called up in emergencies such as major fires. So it is Bush's fault.
  • by Spamalamadingdong (323207) on Tuesday January 06, 2004 @07:19PM (#7897908) Homepage Journal
    I recall reading some years ago that the forest/peat fires in Indonesia (which created a pall of smoke over much of the region and reduced visibility to a few feet over wide areas) dumped more CO2 into the atmosphere than all of the vehicles of Britain in the same year. Here's a paper [ff.org] which cites estimates of 0.6 to 3.5 gigatons from the 1994-5 fires and a similar figure for 1997-8.

    Just goes to show that Kyoto isn't the solution, because it ignores emissions by "developing countries" regardless of origin.

    • I wrote papers about this in graduate school. None of the facts in the article are new at all, we have been aware of these facts for over a decade.

    • There is no solution. Things like Kyoto are just as foolish as Maos plan to have kids kill butterflies (or whatever it was).... incompetant ideas applied by people ignorant of basic science.

      Reality is the environmental quality in an area is directly proportional to the economic development in an area. IT is only once people get beyond a certain standard of living that they start caring about the environment (cause tehy are no longer worrying about basic needs.)

      Thus, the best way-- the only way-- to a cl
      • by Tau Zero (75868) on Tuesday January 06, 2004 @10:20PM (#7899437) Journal

        Things like Kyoto are just as foolish as Maos plan to have kids kill butterflies (or whatever it was).... incompetant ideas applied by people ignorant of basic science.

        That's the conventional Republican wisdom in the USA, but the basic physics tells you that the basis of Kyoto is rock-solid absent solid evidence to contradict this chain of reasoning:

        1. Carbon dioxide, methane, sulfur hexaflouride and such are transparent to most solar radiation, but absorbent across various bands of thermal wavelengths.
        2. Due to this absorbency, increasing the concentration of these gases in the atmosphere will tend to trap heat which currently radiates to space.
        3. To restore the balance between solar flux and radiative cooling, the temperature of the Earth will have to increase on the average.
        4. If we desire to ameliorate these changes, we have to reduce the rate at which greenhouse gases are put into the atmosphere.

        You can say that we don't know enough about the various feedback loops inherent in the system, such as the influence of clouds, to be able to quantify their effects. The thing you don't seem to grasp is that the basic physics places the burden of proof on the people claiming the absence of detrimental effects.

        (And you make these implicit claims in a post with obvious errors of grammar and spelling. The irony is thick.)

        Reality is the environmental quality in an area is directly proportional to the economic development in an area.

        Reality is that the environmental quality in places like the Tongass National Forest is quite high, except where it has been developed (clearcut). The environmental quality in cities and the like tends to be higher where the standard of living (and thus the demand and ability to pay for pollution-control technology) is higher, but your blanket statement is trivially false.

        Thus, the best way-- the only way-- to a cleaner environment is unregulated economic development.

        No regulations? You mean, let dirty plants dump pesticide byproducts and heavy metals into the rivers and lakes that other people use for drinking water? I believe they tried that in the Soviet Bloc, and it didn't work very well at all; they are still trying to recover from the damage.

        A basic lack of understanding of economics is behind most environmental solutions (as well as the war on poverty, etc.) and thus they actually cause the problem to be worse, not better.

        Is that so? Tell me, did the regulations against the burning of coal in London after the Killer Fog cause the problem to get worse? How about the motor-vehicle pollution controls in California; did they make the Los Angeles smog worse? Or the ban on phosphates in detergents; did it make the eutrophication problem in Lake Erie worse?

        I like people like you. You make it so easy to convince readers that you are wrong.

        And for the record, I have nothing against corporations. Corporations are just like individuals, creatures looking for their own benefit. The way to keep them from doing harm is to prevent them from creating harm to others without having to pay for it; if everyone has to pay, the way to maxmize profit is to minimize such expenses and the problem solves itself. We get problems such as smog, algae-choked lakes and empty aquifers when people are permitted to take or dump without having to respect the limits of the resource they're using (whether the ability to create or the ability to absorb) and pay a market price for it.

        The thing you have to argue against is the huge success which the Montreal Protocol has had in controlling stratospheric halogens; the polar ozone holes are already showing signs of recovery as the concentration of CFCs comes down. I agree with you that the demand of many watermelons (Green on the outside, Red on the inside) that any GHG control regime be turned into a welfare program for dysfuncti

        • Let me refute your fourth claim.

          1. Carbon dioxide, methane, sulfur hexaflouride and such are transparent to most solar radiation, but absorbent across various bands of thermal wavelengths.

          True.

          2. Due to this absorbency, increasing the concentration of these gases in the atmosphere will tend to trap heat which currently radiates to space.

          True.

          3. To restore the balance between solar flux and radiative cooling, the temperature of the Earth will have to increase on the average.

          This requires a leap of faith -- namely some laws of thermodynamics. But the end result is also true. If the heat absorbed is different from the heat emitted, then the body will either cool off or heat up.

          4. If we desire to ameliorate these changes, we have to reduce the rate at which greenhouse gases are put into the atmosphere.

          I agree. That is one way that we can help the earth cool off. But there are other ways.

          We can boil some of the atmosphere away. This happens constantly and changes in temperature and pressure will change the rate at which out atmosphere boils away. Fortunately, the warmer the planet gets, the more atmosphere that boils away. Don't worry, we have a fresh atmosphere ready to supply us in the rocks below us. Otherwise we would've lost it a long time ago.

          We can trap some of the heat beneath the surface. The earth naturally draws heat out of the atmosphere and absorbs it below the surface. There may be a simple way to accelerate this process, should the temperature become extreme. By the way, the earth's crust is an excellent insulator.

          We can convert some of the heat into energy stored in molecular bonds. There are chemical reactions that result in a lowering of the temperature of the medium the reaction occured in. Bonus points if the chemical reaction involves remove greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere and deposits it safely on the earth's surface.

          We can increase the amount of gasses that reflect solar radiation, increasing the albedo of the planet and reducing the amount of radiation absorbed. There are certain gasses that naturally reflect sunlight away from out planet. Increasing the amount of these gasses will make the atmosphere more like a mirror and reflect away all of the incoming heat.

          You are looking at the problem as if there was only one solution. The bottom line is that there isn't only one solution. We are not even sure if the earth is warming up or cooling. And we know that any variation in the sun's emissions will result in changes that we can't control here on earth.

          I understand that there are systems so extraordinarily complicated and chaotic that even with advanced supercomputers and the world's brightest minds we cannot understand them. The weather happens to be one of them. We cannot predict the weather reliably. We can barely predict the weather today or tomorrow. How can we possibly predict the weather one hundred years from now?

          So I have decided long ago, that I will sit back and enjoy a cool refreshing drink from my refrigerator that uses CFCs as a refrigerant, delivered to me by trucks using gasoline as a propellant, and exhaling that sacred CO2 from my lungs with every breath I take. Worrying about something so grossly out of my control is counterproductive to my happiness.
          • We can boil some of the atmosphere away.

            False. This does not happen naturally (at least for O2, N2 and CO2), and there is no 'new atmosphere' waiting in the rocks.

            We can trap some of the heat beneath the surface. The earth naturally draws heat out of the atmosphere and absorbs it below the surface.

            False. The natural heat flux is out of the planet into the oceans/atmosphere.

            We can convert some of the heat into energy stored in molecular bonds.

            In order to do useful work (such as make molecular

            • Any in particular, or are you just making more stuff up?

              I don't "make stuff up". I attended the University of Washington and studied Physics. I achieved very high marks in the Thermodynamics and Astrophysics courses. I graduated June 2000 with a BS in Physics and a minor in math.

              And your credentials are?

              Let me cite to you some very basic things:
              1) Certain chemical reactions render gasses such as oxygen and carbon dioxide from solids that are found naturally in the earth crust. In fact, the whole reason
          • We can boil some of the atmosphere away.

            Uh-huh. What evidence do you have that this occurs at a significant rate, let alone one fast enough to offset greenhouse warming? How much energy would it take, and where would you get it?

            We can trap some of the heat beneath the surface. The earth naturally draws heat out of the atmosphere and absorbs it below the surface.

            The Earth emits heat on average. Pumping atmospheric heat into the crust (a reversal of geothermal energy) would require a large source of en

            • Heat is the transfer of energy. The energy needed to boil extra atmosphere away would come from the extra heat that global warming is claimed to produce.

              Sulfuric acid aerosols are not needed. Ice has a plenty high enough albedo.

              Energy to power an effort to cool the atmosphere with heat pumps would likely come from the sun or the earth itself. Any energy we absorb to power the machines will be energy not used to heat the earth.

              I was trying to overthrow the original posters argument that increasing the con
          • The earth naturally draws heat out of the atmosphere and absorbs it below the surface.

            Let's see---the first law of thermodynamics tells us that heat flows from hotter objects to cooler ones. The core of the earth is about 6000 degrees C (due to heating by radioactive decay). Heat is constantly flowing from the hot core to the cooler crust, then to the oceans and atmosphere. You aren't going to make heat spontaneously flow the other way.

            Did you learn any science at some point, or do you get on in life b

          • 2. Due to this absorbency, increasing the concentration of these gases in the atmosphere will tend to trap heat which currently radiates to space.

            Yes, but isn't most of our heat coming in from space as opposed to going out and escaping? The earth isn't really all that good at self-heating to support life, unless you count volcanic regions, with the sun being the major source of heat input. Doesn't any gas doing one also do the other (trap or block heat in either direction?)
            • Doesn't any gas doing one also do the other (trap or block heat in either direction?)

              Here's a simplified description. There are details missing, but this explains the major points:

              1. Heat comes in as visible light, which is not absorbed by CO2.
              2. When the visible light is absorbed by earth and ocean, it is converted to heat.
              3. Heat is emitted from from earth and ocean in the form of infrared light.
              4. Infrared light is absorbed by CO2.
              5. Absorption of IR light by CO2 heats the atmosphere.
              6. As the atmosphere heats,
              • Here's a simplified version for some other chemical that might exist:

                1. Heat comes in as visible light, but is reflected back into space.

                2. Infrared light from the surface of the earth passes through the chemical and is emitted to space.

                Thus, if we increase this chemical, we will experience global cooling.

                In layman's terms, CO2 is like an emergency blanket (the shiny kinds) turned shiny side in. This chemical would be like an emergency blanket with shiny side out.

                I'm sure anyone who knows what the abso
                • This chemical exists. It's called soot.

                  I know that you are being humorous, but nonetheless, I will point out some problems:

                  1. Some of us enjoy being able to see through the air, see the sun, moon, and stars, etc.
                  2. Reducing visible light hitting surface would be bad for agriculture. Plants need light to photosynthesize, you know.
                  3. Combining opacity in visible with greenhouse gases would make the earth's temperature more uniform: cooler tropics, warmer poles. This would seriously affect climate and weather pat
        • That's the conventional Republican wisdom in the USA, but the basic physics tells you that the basis of Kyoto is rock-solid absent solid evidence to contradict this chain of reasoning:


          1. Carbon dioxide, methane, sulfur hexaflouride and such are transparent to most solar radiation, but absorbent across various bands of thermal wavelengths.
          2. Due to this absorbency, increasing the concentration of these gases in the atmosphere will tend to trap heat which currently radiates to space.
          3. To restore the balance betw
          • Seems logical, but the problem is that the atmosphere has so much CO2 in it that it is already mostly opaque to outgoing longwave radiation. Adding more CO2 doesn't make it much more opaque.

            From sea level, maybe. But the atmosphere thins on a more or less exponential curve as altitude increases, and the transparency of the air above it along with it. If you consider the "surface" of the Sun, what you're seeing is the layer where the transfer of energy by radiation suddenly becomes quicker than transfer b

        • > The thing you don't seem to grasp is that the basic physics places the burden of proof on the people claiming the absence of detrimental effects.

          Uh.. no. You're not the first Chicken Little this world has seen. There's been at least one batch in every generation (for my parents it was Global Cooling in the 70s.) People are still (fortunately) very skeptical of gloom-and-doom scenarios. The burden of proof is very much on you. If public policy were driven by the precautionary principle we'd still be l

        • You're neither a conservative nor a conservationaist.

          If you were, you'd know that the soviet union's state controlled environemntal damage is what we have here. Not what I advocate.

          The largest polluter in the country is the government, and the government is immune to regulation to prevetn it from polluting. IF you really were a conservationist or a conservative, you'd want to reduce the size of government and remove their ability to pollute with impunity.

          When you talk about "Rock solid physics" you're
      • by silentbozo (542534) on Wednesday January 07, 2004 @12:51AM (#7900426) Journal
        If I recall, Mao [rotten.com] declared a certain sparrow a pest (the propaganda was that the bird was stealing valuable grain) so they embarked on a nationwide campaign to exterminate the bird. Little kids beat pans to drive birds away from their nesting sites, hunters used nets, rocks, etc. Of course, it turned out the sparrow was a needed predator, to control the insects that eventually ravaged their grain crops...

        The question is, what does this have to do with El Nino?
    • The difference is that the plants absorb CO2 from the atmosphere for several years, then return it to the atmosphere when they burn. It's a closed cycle with no net growth of atmospheric CO2.

      There is no corresponding cycle to balance burning fossil fuels over the short term, so the more fossil fuels we burn, the longer the residence time of CO2 molecules, and the greater the concentration.

      If you look at charts of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, you see annual cycles, ENSO cycles, and other short t

    • The link between the forest fires and Kyoto is slim. What percentage of developed-world CO2 emissions do you think are accounted for by UK vehicles? Pretty small, I'd guess. For example, the US alone has over 5 times as many cars as the UK. And there are plenty of other sources of CO2. So the Java fires were still only a small proportion of worldwide CO2 emissions that year - and they don't happen every year, unlike automobile emissions.

      As for the general point about El Nino resulting in increased greenhou
      • But what if global warming is caused by an increase in the amount of radiation emitted by the sun?

        Ain't nothing gonna stop that :-p

        The number of variables that effect our planetary climate are so vast and varied and interconnected and probably more then a few are still unknown, it seems quite arrogant to think we know how to solve the problem.

        And is it really a problem anyways, since we know the earth in the past has been MUCH hotter then it is today...

        But really, the truth is that aliens cause global
  • funding (Score:4, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 06, 2004 @07:22PM (#7897939)
    This research was made possible by a grant from GM, Chrysler, and Ford.
    • GM, Chrysler and Ford have all put substantial time and money into developing ways to power their cars while reducing or eliminating carbon dioxide emissions.
      The car companies have solutions, it's just a question of whether society is ready for them yet.
  • by xilmaril (573709)
    this could mean that cars and industrial waste aren't as big a problem as was thought. that's great, but it's still a problem, as the smog of LA isn't caused by forest fires, I'd say

    more practically, tho, we still want to find a way to stop this. could it be caused by the human races continued mismanagement of the forests? after all, el nino has happened before. we seem to be becoming more and more prone to it.

    I think modern forest-management needs to take a major turn, and it isn't the one usually advoca
    • The forests in question are in Indonesia, where peat bogs full of old trees are first cut for lumber and then partially drained and planted as plantations. Drying out the peat makes it very susceptible to fire, which releases huge amounts of trapped carbon.
    • "could it be caused by the human races continued mismanagement of the forests?"

      Could it be that fires happen? They are a *natural* occurance you know. You can't blame *everything* on mankind.

      I say it's all the fault of those damned dinosaurs...
        • I say it's all the fault of those damned dinosaurs...

        Indeed. Damn them for dying out! If they hadn't, we *humans* probably wouldn't have any of these environmental problems right now...

        Hey, I know! I suggest we do not cause a global extinction of all land life, so we won't get blamed by some intelligent decendant of a toad for their environmental problems in ~100 million years.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 06, 2004 @07:43PM (#7898147)
    ... to sign on to Kyoto. Jeez, what's so complicated?

    Regards,
    El Nin Con Poopo

  • GWB and the "good old boys" club. In tomorrow's study: how driving hummers cross-country actually helps the environment!
  • by capoccia (312092) on Tuesday January 06, 2004 @08:21PM (#7898474) Journal
    Slashdot really needs better unicode/international character support. An "n" is not the same as an "n" with a tilde or even "n~".

    Slashdot doesn't let you enter the pound symbol. Imagine writing about prices where every time you wanted to say $, you had to spell out dollar in order for people to know what you were talking about.

    Typographic symbols like dashes, quotes and elipses are all missing.

    http://alistapart.com/articles/emen/ [alistapart.com]
    • Slashdot doesn't let you enter the pound symbol

      Not that I'm sticking up for the quirks in Slashcode, but haven't you ever seen the common three letter currency codes [exxun.com]? Most of them aren't hard to guess -- GBP, USD, CND, AUD, EUR, JPY, CNY etc -- and they're very handy for typographic situations where you don't have access to "funny" characters like the British Pound symbol, the Euro symbol, or the Yen symbol, and you also don't feel like typing out the whole currency name, including discriminators such as

    • ah, aeh, oh, seems I can use my local letters OK.
      Let's try something fancy: Euro --->

      Yikes! This hasn't always been so, has it?
  • by msouth (10321) on Tuesday January 06, 2004 @08:53PM (#7898690) Homepage Journal
    "All this talk about 'firing' the guy, I don't understand it," El Nino said. "It was a painful but ultimately amicable decision. He didn't want to change his diet, and we just couldn't take the smell."
  • by Phronesis (175966) on Tuesday January 06, 2004 @11:12PM (#7899864)
    It's important to be clear that El Nino-induced fires can account for short-term variations (interannual, or so). However, the things that burn only have carbon to emit because they extracted it from the atmosphere, so this result has no effect on the interpretation of CO2 trends over longer time scales.
    • Since when are forest fires referred to as "El Nino"?

      The forest fires are happening because of 75-100 years of forest management policy where we didn't tolerate any fires - which were a normal phenomena. This broke down the natural system. So the fires, which will happen anyway, have been getting systematically worse.

      Where did these policies come from? Poor science environementalists who have no idea of the consequences. They see one bad thing, and do the knee-jerk reaction to "fix" it, frequently mak

      • Since when are forest fires referred to as "El Nino"?

        The article described how El Nino cycles modulate brush fires and forest fires. This has nothing to do with US forest management policy, because most of the fires they're talking about are in South America and Africa.

  • A great Chris Farley quote comes to mind from one of his skits on Saturday Night Live:

    " I am El Nino, and for those of you who dont 'habla espanol', El Nino is Spanish for ..... The Nino!"
  • The carbon dioxide emitted by a forest fire was already there before the trees started growing. All green plants -- from mighty redwoods to tiny algae -- are made principally from carbon, which they get by taking carbon dioxide from the air, leaving behind oxygen for animals to breathe. There is carbon in soil, but not much of that ends up in plants {otherwise how do you explain hydroponics?} Most plants have a fairly short growing cycle {trees are a bit of an exception, but we get much more of our oxy

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