Boreal Forests

June GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from around the web

June GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from around the web

Drawing inspiration from popular stories on our social media channels, as well as unique and quirky research news, this monthly column aims to bring you the best of the Earth and planetary sciences from around the web.

Major Story

With June being the month when the world’s oceans are celebrated with World Ocean Day (8th June) and the month when the UN’s Ocean Conference took place, it seemed apt to dedicate our major story to this precious, diverse and remote landscape.

In fact, so remote and inaccessible are vast swathes of our oceans, that 95% of them are unseen (or unvisited) by human eyes. Despite their inaccessibility, humans are hugely reliant on the oceans.  According to The World Bank, the livelihoods of approximately 10 to 12% of the global population depends on healthy oceans and more than 90%of those employed by capture fisheries are working in small-scale operations in developing countries. Not only that, but the oceans trap vast amounts of heat from the atmosphere, limiting global temperature rise.

Yet we take this valuable and beautiful resource for granted.

As greenhouse gas emissions rise, the oceans must absorb more and more heat. The ocean is warmer today than it has been since recordkeeping began in 1880. Over the past two decades this has resulted in a significant change in the composition of the upper layer of water in our oceans. Research published this month confirms that ocean temperatures are rising at an alarming rate, with dire consequences.

Corals are highly sensitive to changes in ocean temperatures. The 2015 to 2016 El Niño was particularly powerful. As its effects faded, ocean temperatures in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans remained high, meaning 70 percent of corals were exposed to conditions that can cause bleaching. Almost all of the 29 coral reefs on the U.N. World Heritage list have now been damaged by bleaching.

This month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared that bleaching was subsiding for the first time in three years. Some of the affected corals are expected to take 10 to 15 years to recover, in stress-free conditions. But as global and ocean temperatures continue to rise, corals are being pushed closer to their limits.

Warmer ocean temperatures are also causing fish to travel to cooler waters, affecting the livelihoods of fishermen who depend on their daily catch to keep families afloat and changing marine ecosystems forever. And early this month, millions of sea-pickles – a mysterious warm water loving sea creature- washed up along the western coast of the U.S, from Oregon to Alaska. Though scientists aren’t quite sure what caused the bloom, speculation is focused on warming water temperatures.

It is not only warming waters which are threatening the world’s oceans. Our thirst for convenience means a million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute. Campaigners believe that the environmental crisis brought about by the demand for disposable plastic products will soon rival climate change.

In 2015 researchers estimated that 5-13 million tonnes of plastics flow into the world’s oceans annually, much coming from developing Asian nations where waste management practices are poor and the culture for recycling is limited. To tackle the problem, China, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines vouched to try and keep more plastics out of ocean waters. And, with a plastic bottle taking up to 450 years to break down completely, what happens to it if you drop it in the ocean? Some of it, will likely find it’s way to the Arctic. Indeed, recent research suggests that there are roughly 300 billion pieces of floating plastic in the polar ocean alone.

A bottle dropped in the water off the coast of China is likely be carried eastward by the north Pacific gyre and end up a few hundred miles off the coast of the US. Photograph: Graphic. Credit: If you drop plastic in the ocean, where does it end up? The Guardian. Original Source: Plastic Adrift by oceanographer Erik van Sebille. Click to run.

And it’s not only the ocean waters that are feeling the heat. As the demand for resources increases, the need to find them does too. The sea floor is a treasure trove of mineral and geological resources, but deep-sea mining is not without environmental concerns. Despite the ethical unease, nations are rushing to buy up swathes of the ocean floor to ensure their right to mine them in the future. But to realise these deep-water mining dreams, advanced technological solutions are needed, such as the remote-controlled robots Nautilus Minerals will use to exploit the Bismarck Sea, off the coast of Papua New Guinea.

What you might have missed

Lightning reportedly ignited a deadly wildfire in Portugal, seen here by ESA’s Proba-V satellite on 18 June.

“On June 17, 2017, lightning reportedly ignited a deadly wildfire that spread across the mountainous areas of Pedrógão Grande—a municipality in central Portugal located about 160 kilometers (100 miles) northeast of Lisbon”, reported NASA – National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The death toll stands at 62 people (as reported by BBC News). The fires were seen from space by satellites of both NASA and ESA – European Space Agency satellites.

Large wildfires are also becoming increasing common and severe in boreal forests around the world. Natural-color images captured by NASA satellites on June 23rd, shows wildfires raging near Lake Baikal and the Angara River in Siberia. At the same time, a new study has found a link between lightning storms and boreal wildfires, with lightning strikes thought to be behind massive fire years in Alaska and northern Canada. This infographic further explores the link between wildfires triggered both by lightning and human activities.

Meanwhile, in the world’s southernmost continent the crack on the Larsen C ice-shelf continues its inexorable journey across the ice. The rift is set to create on of the largest iceberg ever recorded. Now plunged in the darkness of the Antarctic winter, obtaining images of the crack’s progress is becoming a little tricker. NASA used the Thermal Infrared Sensor (TIRS) on Landsat 8 to capture a false-color image of the crack. The new data, which shows an acceleration of the speed at which the crack is advancing, has lead scientists to believe that calving of the iceberg to the Weddell Sea is imminent.

Links we liked

The EGU story

This month saw the launch of two new division blogs over on the EGU Blogs: The Solar-Terrestrial Sciences and the Geodynamics Division Blogs. The EGU scientific divisions blogs share division-specific news, events, and activities, as well as updates on the latest research in their field.

And don’t forget! To stay abreast of all the EGU’s events and activities, from highlighting papers published in our open access journals to providing news relating to EGU’s scientific divisions and meetings, including the General Assembly, subscribe to receive our monthly newsletter.

Geosciences Column: Fire in ice – the history of boreal forest fires told by Greenland ice cores.

Burning of biomass contributes a significant amount of greenhouses gases to the atmosphere, which in turn influences regional air quality and global climate. Since the advent of humans, there has been a significant increase in the amount of biomass burning, particularly after the industrial revolution. What might not be immediately obvious is that, (naturally occurring) fires also play a part in emitting particulates and greenhouse gases which can absorb solar radiation and contribute to changing Earth’s climate. Producing a reliable record of pre-industrial fire history, as a benchmark to better understand the role of fires in the carbon cycle and climate system, is the focus of research recently published in the open access journal, Climate of the Past.

Forest fires.  Credit: Sandro Makowski (distributed via

Forest fires. Credit: Sandro Makowski (distributed via

Did you know the combustion of biomass can emit up to 50% as much CO2 as the burning of fossil fuels? The incomplete burning of biomass during fires also produces significant amounts of a fine particle known as black carbon (BC). Compare BC to more familiar greenhouse gases such as methane, ozone and nitrous oxide and you’ll find it absorbs more incoming radiation than the usual suspects. In fact, it is the second largest contributor to climate change.

NEEM camp position and representation of boreal vegetation and land cover between 50 and 90 N. Modified from the European Commission Global Land Cover 2000 database and based on the work of cartographer Hugo Alhenius UNEP/GRIP-Arendal (Alhenius, 2003). From Zennaro et al., (2014).

NEEM camp position and representation of boreal vegetation and land cover between 50 and 90 N. Modified from the European Commission Global Land Cover 2000 database and based on the work of cartographer Hugo Alhenius UNEP/GRIP-Arendal (Alhenius, 2003). From Zennaro et al., (2014). Click to enlarge.

The boreal zone contains 30% of the world’s forests, including needle-leaved and scale-leaved evergreen trees, such as conifers. They are common in North America, Europe and Siberia, but fires styles in these regions are diverse owing to differences in weather and local tree types. For instance, fires in Russia are known to be more intense than those in North America, despite which they burn less fuel and so produce fewer emissions. All boreal forest fires are important sources of pollutants in the Arctic. Models suggest that in the summertime, the fires in Siberian forests are the main source of BC in the Artic and shockingly, exceed all contributions from man-made sources!

To build a history of forest fires over a 2000 year period the researchers used ice cores from the Greenland ice sheet. Compounds, such as ammonium, nitrate, BC and charcoal (amongst others), are the product of biomass burning, and can be measured in ice cores acting as indicators of a distant forest fires. Measure a single compound and your results can’t guarantee the signature is that of a forest fire, as these compounds can often be released during the burning of other natural sources and fossil fuels. To overcome this, a combined approach is best. In this new study, researchers measured the concentrations of levoglucosan, charcoal and ammonium to detect the signature of forest fires in the ice. Levoglucosan is a particularly good indicator because it is released during the burning of cellulose – a building block of trees – and is efficiently injected into the atmosphere via smoke plumes and deposited on the surface of glaciers.

The findings indicate that spikes in levoglucosan concentrations measured in the ice from the Greenland ice sheet correlate with known fire activity in the Northern Hemisphere, as well as peaks in charcoal concentrations. Indeed, a proportion of the peaks indicate very large fire events in the last 2000 years. The links don’t end there! Spikes in concentrations of all three measured compounds record a strong fire in 1973 AD. Taking into account errors in the age model, this event can be correlated with a heat wave and severe drought during 1972 CE in Russia which was reported in The New York Times and The Palm Beach Post, at the time.

Ice core. Credit: Tour of the drilling facility by Eli Duke, Flickr.

Ice core. Credit: Tour of the drilling facility by Eli Duke, Flickr.

The results show that a strong link exists between temperature, precipitation and the onset of fires. Increased atmospheric CO2 leads to higher temperatures which results in greater plant productivity, creating more fuel for future fires. In periods of draught the risk of fire is increased. This is confirmed in the ice core studied, as a period of heightened fire activity from 1500-1700 CE coincides with an extensive period of draught in Asia at a time when the monsoons failed. More importantly, the concentrations of levoglucosan measured during this time exceed those of the past 150 years, when land-clearing by burning, for agricultural and other purposes, became common place. And so it seems that the occurrence of boreal forest fires has, until now, been influenced by variability in climate more than by anthropogenic activity. What remains unclear is what the effects of continued climate change might have on the number and intensity of boreal forest fires in the future.

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer



Zennaro, P., et al.: Fire in ice: two millennia of boreal forest fire history from the Greenland NEEM ice core, Clim. Past, 10, 1905-1924, doi:10.5194/cp-10-1905-2014, 2014.