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Thursday, 7 November, 2002, 00:07 GMT
Wildfires blamed for greenhouse gas rise
Smog covers burning forest
Billions of tons of carbon is released by wildfires
New research has shown that the forest fires which ravaged South East Asia five years ago caused a massive increase in levels of the greenhouse gases which are blamed for global warming.


Recurrent fires have... the threatening potential of making a very significant contribution to this [global] warming

Dr Susan Page
Scientists from Indonesia and Europe believe that between 0.8 and 2.6 billion tonnes of carbon entered the atmosphere after the fires in Indonesia - contributing to the biggest annual increase in carbon emissions since records began.

Almost a million hectares of forest were destroyed in the fires, mainly in Borneo and Sumatra, which produced a choking smog across much of southeast Asia.

It is thought they were sparked off by loggers, industrialists and farmers after the failure of seasonal rains created ideal conditions for a blaze.

Land clearance blamed

The scientists, whose research is published in Nature, also found that most of the carbon did not come from the burnt trees but from smouldering deposits of peat.

Tropical peatlands store huge amounts of carbon which, the scientists say, could be released by forest fires in the future.

"Carbon dioxide is known to be responsible for the global warming of the atmosphere of the Earth," said the head of the team of scientists, Dr Susan Page, from the University of Leicester in the UK.

"Recurrent fires have, therefore, the threatening potential of making a very significant contribution to this warming."

Satellite picture of El Nino
Droughts prolonged by El Nino fuel wildfires
Carbon produced by the fires accounted for 13%-40% of that year's total worldwide emissions - produced by the burning of fossil fuels such as oil, coal and gas.

The scientists warned that the continued use of fire as a means of clearing land would lead to higher emissions of carbon dioxide unless policies were changed.

The Indonesian fires five years ago were set off when timber and plantation companies tried to clear land.

The fires then spread due to a prolonged drought blamed on the El Nino climate phenomenon.

El Nino is a swell of warm water in the Pacific Ocean that affects global weather patterns.

Dr Page's team worked in the Central Kalimantan province of Borneo, where 8,000 square kilometres of swamp forest were scorched.

They used satellite data to estimate the amount of carbon released by the wildfires.

In total, the fires covered about 60,000 square kilometres of Indonesia's peat swamp overall - an area twice the size of Belgium.

That makes up around one-third of the archipelago's total peat swamp.


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01 Nov 02 | South Asia
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