A new study published in the journal Nature Geoscience suggests controlled fires may actually increase the capacity of the soil to store CO2 compared to vegetation.
In fact, the study’s authors argue that fires are an essential part of the planet’s carbon cycle.
According to one of the co-authors Adam Pellegrini, mankind already widely uses controlled fires or prescribed burning, as it is also known, as a means of mitigating the future severity of wildfires.
But these recent findings have demonstrated fire’s ability to increase CO2 levels in the soil in grasslands, temperate forests and savannas.
The research was focused primarily on topsoil levels, which is less than 12 inches deep.
Surprisingly, more carbon was stored there than in both the planet’s vegetation and the atmosphere surrounding it combined.
This happens as a result of the fact that strong wildfires burn plants and the organic levels of soil, which leads to erosion and carbon being released into the air – carbon that may take decades to re-accumulate.
But with the necessary intensity and frequency, fire can also make soil offset carbon losses and stabilize ecosystem CO2.
This, in turn, can occur as a result of creating charcoal.
Charcoal does not decompose and collects chunks of soil that act as a shield for the carbon-rich organic matter found in their center.
Furthermore, fire can also help boost the quantities of CO2 found in soil minerals.
It is all about finding the delicate balance between the CO2 that goes into soils from dead plants and the CO2 that leaves the soil as a result of erosion and decomposition, according to Pellegrini.
The study argues that intense, frequent fries burn organic material that would otherwise release carbon dioxide into the soil, which, in turn, destabilizes soils.
Cooler, infrequent fires, on the other hand, could increase CO2 retention.