Lightning Threatens Boreal Forests: Climate Change Elevates Wildfire Risks, Imperiling Carbon Reserves

by Henrik Andersen
lightning-induced wildfires

A recent study accentuates the escalating peril of wildfires ignited by lightning in boreal forests, a consequence of climate change. This collaborative global research, leveraging machine learning, pinpoints lightning as the predominant initiator of fires in untouched extratropical forests. This contrasts with the human-induced fires in tropical areas. Predictions from climate models suggest a notable rise in lightning occurrences with increasing global temperatures, thereby heightening the likelihood of severe wildfires.

The findings signal a heightened risk of such wildfires in boreal forests, which could further intensify global warming by destabilizing the substantial carbon deposits in these areas.

The study, spearheaded by Dr. Declan Finney from the School of Earth and Environment, involved collaboration with experts from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Jiangsu Academy of Agricultural Sciences, the University of East Anglia, and BeZero Carbon Ltd.

Published on November 9 in Nature Geoscience, the article titled “Extratropical forests increasingly at risk of lightning fires” sheds new light on this subject.

Leveraging Machine Learning to Analyze Wildfires

The researchers employed machine learning to ascertain the primary causes of wildfire ignitions – whether human or natural (lightning) – across various global regions. The algorithm was refined using data from seven distinct regions to enhance its predictive accuracy.

This study is groundbreaking in its global attribution of fire ignition sources.

It reveals that 77% of the burn areas in pristine extratropical forests are due to lightning, in stark contrast to the predominantly human-caused fires in tropical forests.

Intact extratropical forests, characterized by minimal human activity and small populations, are largely found in remote boreal areas.

Examining Climate Change’s Influence on Lightning Incidence

The researchers also utilized climate models to explore the potential changes in lightning frequency as global temperatures rise.

Findings indicate an 11 to 31 percent increase in lightning frequency per degree of global warming over these untouched extratropical forests, implying more wildfire ignitions due to climate change.

Wildfires caused by lightning are typically larger, more intense, and confined to remote areas during times of extreme fuel dryness, compared to those caused by humans.

Previous studies by the team have demonstrated increasing frequency and intensity of fire-prone weather conditions as the climate warms, leading to more flammable forests.

This increased flammability, coupled with the rising incidence of lightning, signals an escalating wildfire threat for intact extratropical forests in the future.

Dr. Finney, an authority on lightning and climate change, remarked:

“This research underscores lightning’s crucial role in ecosystems and global carbon storage. Often, we consider lightning’s impact on humans, but it’s also a key wildfire ignition source in remote, human-scarce regions, especially in boreal forests, where it can spark wildfires and trigger additional greenhouse gas emissions.”

Carbon Storage and Emissions in Extratropical Forests

These forests are globally significant for their extensive carbon storage in vegetation and permafrost soils.

Approximately 91 percent of these northern hemisphere forests are underlain by permafrost.

Wildfires in these areas release substantial amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, more so than in other regions.

Despite covering only about 1 percent of the Earth’s land surface, fires in these pristine extratropical forests account for over 8 percent of global CO2 emissions from fires.

Projections suggest that by the century’s end, under a moderate emissions scenario, fires could increase greenhouse gas emissions from permafrost thaw by 30 percent.

Dr. Matthew Jones, a Research Fellow at the University of East Anglia specializing in the carbon cycle and climate change, stated: “Extratropical forests play a vital role globally by storing dense carbon reserves in vegetation and soils, aiding in the reduction of atmospheric CO2 and moderating global warming.

“However, wildfires in these regions emit more CO2 per area than almost any other place on Earth.

“Our research emphasizes the vulnerability of extratropical forests to the combined effects of a warmer, drier climate and an increased likelihood of lightning-strike ignitions.

“Rising lightning ignitions pose a risk to the vast carbon stores in extratropical forests, especially as these regions become warmer, drier, and more susceptible to fires.”

A Record-Breaking Fire Season

This research gains relevance in light of Canada’s unprecedented fire season in 2023, where fire emissions were over four times higher than the average from 2003-2022. Initial reports indicate numerous lightning ignitions in Canada this year.

Dr. Thomas Janssen from VU, the study’s lead author, commented: “While our research didn’t directly address Canada’s extreme fire season this year, it aids in comprehending these events.

“Boreal forests are likely to experience more extreme fire seasons in warmer climates due to hotter, drier conditions and increased lightning strikes.”

The authors caution that greenhouse gas emissions from fires can exacerbate atmospheric carbon levels,

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about lightning-induced wildfires

What is the main finding of the recent research on boreal forests?

The study found that climate change is increasing the frequency of lightning-induced wildfires in boreal forests, posing a threat to these crucial carbon storage areas and potentially exacerbating global warming.

How does machine learning contribute to this wildfire research?

Machine learning was used to differentiate between human-caused and lightning-induced wildfires globally. It helped identify that 77% of wildfires in intact extratropical forests are caused by lightning, a contrast to human-caused fires in tropical regions.

What impact does climate change have on lightning frequency in boreal forests?

Climate models predict an 11 to 31 percent increase in lightning frequency per degree of global warming over intact extratropical forests, leading to a higher risk of intense wildfires.

Why are extratropical forests significant in the context of global warming?

Extratropical forests are crucial as they store vast amounts of carbon in vegetation and permafrost soils. Wildfires in these regions release significant CO2 and other greenhouse gases, contributing to global warming.

How did Canada’s 2023 fire season relate to the study’s findings?

Canada’s record-breaking fire season in 2023, with emissions over four times the 2003-2022 average, aligned with the study’s findings. It highlighted the increased likelihood of extreme fire seasons in boreal forests due to climate change, including more frequent and intense lightning strikes.

More about lightning-induced wildfires

  • Nature Geoscience Article on Boreal Forests
  • Dr. Declan Finney’s Research Profile
  • University of East Anglia Climate Research
  • Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam Environmental Studies
  • Jiangsu Academy of Agricultural Sciences
  • BeZero Carbon Ltd. Climate Initiatives
  • Canadian 2023 Wildfire Season Report
  • Machine Learning in Environmental Research
  • Climate Change and Lightning Frequency Study
  • Permafrost and Carbon Emissions Research

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Mike D November 26, 2023 - 11:34 am

So if lightning increases, we get more wildfires? that’s a scary thought, nature is really unpredictable

Jenny L November 26, 2023 - 2:53 pm

didn’t realize how serious wildfires are becoming especially in places like boreal forests… scary stuff

Sarah K November 26, 2023 - 4:57 pm

Great article, but it’s a bit overwhelming, climate change seems like such a huge problem to tackle

Emma P November 26, 2023 - 5:26 pm

Interesting research, makes me think about what more we can do to fight global warming, every bit helps right?

Mark J November 26, 2023 - 8:53 pm

wow, this is super important info, climate change is really messing things up, gotta share this with my friends

Tom R November 26, 2023 - 10:45 pm

the part about machine learning is cool, amazing how tech can help us understand climate issues better


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