Rainforests at risk: Where theres smoke, theres even more fire

EAST LANSING, Mich. In the tropical rainforests, its nearly impossible to see the fire for the smoke, a growing problem thats allowing unintended and unchecked fires to threaten vast regions of ecologically vital terrain.

Intentional deforestation in rainforests has gained much attention, but in a report in the Feb. 27 edition of the British science journal Nature, a Michigan State University researcher discovers that beneath the heavy smoke of intentional burns lie unintentional out-of-control fires that are devouring millions of acres of forests.

These rainforest fires are much more frequent than these ecosystems can resist, said the papers author, Mark Cochrane, a research scientist at Michigan States Center for Global Change and Earth Observations. These fires are flying under the radar and people dont realize whats happening. If frequent burning of these forests continues, well end up with a very different ecosystem.

Cochrane studied satellite images and explored tropical rainforests and surrounding areas of human encroachment in Latin America. Other research has shown that fires pose similar threats in Southeast Asia and Africa. His results underscore a crucial need to better understand how fire behaves in rainforests and how unintended fires can be detected and contained.

Fire in a rainforest behaves differently than fire in temperate forests, such as in North America. Rather than rage, rainforest fires initially often creep slow and low along the bottom of the dense tropical growth. Cochrane said what they lack in drama, they make up for in ferocity. The bark of most tropical trees is thin. A small ground fire snaking through the rainforest can mortally wound 40 percent of the trees.

Often, its a slow death. Small trees go first. Older trees eventually fall. The forest is thinned and weakened, leaving it susceptible to more fires, which have a greater chance of gaining strength to a full-fledged in

Contact: Mark Cochrane
Michigan State University

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