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Assessment of Biomass Burning in the Conterminous United States

Bill Leenhouts, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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Abstract

Wildland fire has been an integral part of the landscape of the conterminous United States for millennia. Analysis of contemporary and pre-industrial (~ 200 - 500 yr BP) conditions, using potential natural vegetation, satellite imagery, and ecological fire regime information, shows that wildland fires burned 35 - 86 x 106 ha (megahectares) annually in the pre-industrial era, consuming 530 - 1230 teragram (Tg) of biomass. At present, in comparison, 5 - 7 Mha/yr burn, consuming 77 - 189 Tg of biomass annually. If historic fire regimes were restored to non-urban and non-agricultural lands today, 18 - 43 Mha would burn annually, consuming 285 - 602 Tg of biomass. For each era, 11 biomass (wildland and agricultural) burning emissions were estimated, and differences of similar magnitude were found. Estimates of contemporary fossil fuel emissions are also provided for comparison. Atmospheric, climatic, social, and ecological system effects from the decrease in area burned, biomass consumed, and emissions produced are discussed.

Key words

air quality; biomass burning; climate change; conterminous United States; emission estimates; fire regimes; pre-industrial conditions; prescribed burning; wildland fire.
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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087