Global fire emissions buffered by the production of pyrogenic carbon

Abstract

Landscape fires burn 3–5 million km2 of the Earth’s surface annually. They emit 2.2 Pg of carbon per year to the atmosphere, but also convert a significant fraction of the burned vegetation biomass into pyrogenic carbon. Pyrogenic carbon can be stored in terrestrial and marine pools for centuries to millennia and therefore its production can be considered a mechanism for long-term carbon sequestration. Pyrogenic carbon stocks and dynamics are not considered in global carbon cycle models, which leads to systematic errors in carbon accounting. Here we present a comprehensive dataset of pyrogenic carbon production factors from field and experimental fires and merge this with the Global Fire Emissions Database to quantify the global pyrogenic carbon production flux. We found that 256 (uncertainty range: 196–340) Tg of biomass carbon was converted annually into pyrogenic carbon between 1997 and 2016. Our central estimate equates to 12% of the annual carbon emitted globally by landscape fires, which indicates that their emissions are buffered by pyrogenic carbon production. We further estimate that cumulative pyrogenic carbon production is 60 Pg since 1750, or 33–40% of the global biomass carbon lost through land use change in this period. Our results demonstrate that pyrogenic carbon production by landscape fires could be a significant, but overlooked, sink for atmospheric CO2.

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Fig. 1: Schematic of the global carbon cycle including the buffer and legacy roles of PyC.
Fig. 2: The box plots show the distributions of PPyC values for each of the biomass component classes in the production factor dataset.
Fig. 3: Annual global PyC production estimates from GFED4s+PyC for the period 1997–2016.
Fig. 4: Annual average PyC production rates for the period 1997–2016 from GFED4s+PyC, based on central production factors (Fig. 2).

Data availability

The global dataset of the PyC production factors is available as a supplementary data file (GlobalPyC_supplementarydataset.xlsx). This dataset will also be uploaded to the GFED website (http://www.globalfiredata.org) and updated with new data as it becomes available. Supplementary Section 4 contains full references to the studies included in the production factor dataset. Burned area and fire emissions data are publicly available at the GFED website. Additional ancillary data are available from the corresponding author on request.

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Acknowledgements

This work was funded by a Leverhulme Trust Research Project Grant awarded to S.H.D. (RPG-2014-095), a Swansea University College of Science Fund awarded to M.W.J., a Vici grant awarded to G.R.vdW. by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), and a European Union Horizon 2020 research and innovation grant awarded to C.S. (Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant 663830). We thank C. Aponte, C. Boot, G. Clay, G. Cook, F. Cotrufo, P. Fearnside, B. Goforth, R. Graham, M. Haddix, P. Homann, D. Hurst and M. Jenkins for their assistance during the collation of the global dataset of PyC production factors. We also thank B. de Groot for his part in securing funding of the Leverhulme Trust Grant.

Author information

M.W.J., C.S. and S.H.D. designed the study. S.H.D. led the Leverhulme Trust Research Project grant that funded the main body of the work. M.W.J. collated the PyC production factor dataset with support from C.S. C.S. and S.H.D. provided unpublished PyC production data. G.R.vdW. provided access to the GFED4s code. M.W.J. adapted the GFED4s code to include PyC production with the support of G.R.vdW. M.W.J. conducted the formal analysis of the production factor dataset and model outputs. All the authors contributed to the interpretation of the results. M.W.J. wrote the manuscript and produced all the figures. All the authors contributed to the refinement of the manuscript.

Correspondence to Matthew W. Jones.

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Supplementary description, Supplementary Figs. 1–6 and Supplementary Tables 1–4

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