Friday, May 23, 2008

The Map of Earth’s Fire Scars

Image (c) University of Leicester

All of us here at Environmental Graffiti care a lot about the planet. True, we tend to look at details: bizarre environmental news, trends and things that not that many people notice. Despite this, sometimes, just sometimes it’s important to look at the bigger picture.

That’s why I was personally fascinated and slightly horrified about a new map that shows just how much vegetation has been burned by fires on our planet. The visual impression of fire scars spans from 2000 to 2007 and was created by Geographer Dr Kevin Tansey of the University of Leicester.

The map graphically illustrates the destruction of roughly 4.5 million km2 of vegetation that is caused by fire every single year. To put this in perspective, the area is bigger than a country like India, which is enormous!

So how is the data captured?

With massive supercomputers and satellites of course. The European satellite SPOT, collects reflected solar energy on a daily basis and provides global coverage. When the vegetation burns, the reflected energy is changed long enough to make an observation of the scar. Supercomputers in Belgium then process the data.

This information useful because not only can it help scientists predict the latest forest fires and help extinguish them quickly, but it is also vital for understanding the effect the fires will have on global warming.

But what about areas that need to be deliberately cleared for agriculture?

Most of the fires occur in Africa of course and the system can be sustainable in the savannah grasslands, as the grass can regenerate extremely fast during monsoon season – there is an equilibrium from a carbon perspective, as the regeneration of vegetation acts as a carbon sink. It’s also nature’s way of clearing forest floors, so that further regeneration of flora and fauna can take place.

However, fires in forests are notoriously diabolical for global warming, as the area becomes a carbon emitter for a number of years. Dr Tansey says:

“The forest fires last summer in Greece and in Portugal a couple of years back, remind us that we need to understand the impact of fire on the environment and climate to manage the vegetation of the planet more effectively. Probably 95% of all vegetation fires have a human source; crop stubble burning, forest clearance, hunting, arson are all causes of fire across the globe. Fire has been a feature of the planet in the past and under a scenario of a warmer environment will certainly be a feature in the future”.

One our previous contributors Richard Rhodes witnessed influential locals creating forest fires in Thailand. You can see what damage they caused below:

Original here

Ethanol Use in US and Brazil Rises Sharply

In Europe, not so much…

Brazil, which has to a large degree lead the ethanol charge because of its ability to use sugar cane for ethanol production rather than corn, now relies on the biofuel for 16% of its energy needs. This puts ethanol at #2 in Brazil for largest energy sources, right ahead of hydroelectric, which accounts for 14.7% of electricity production. Both of these sources, however, are behind petroleum, which is the largest energy producer in Brazil.

In the US, on the other hand, ethanol still does not play such a prominent role, even though 23.7% of the annual corn crop is going to create biofuels. The market share that ethanol commands in the US will likely only increase, especially as new technologies allow for the production of cellulosic ethanol and sources other than corn come into vogue.

Even though ethanol seems to be one of the waves of the future, this year production was actually down in Europe, even though that loss in production was made up for by imports from ethanol-rich Brazil. Globally, ethanol only contributed 1.3% to oil consumption in 2007, but that share does appear to be rising rapidly, especially as US politicians push ethanol subsidies and Brazil continues to ramp up production in order to satisfy world demand.

Original here