BOULDER, Colo., March 17 (UPI) -- U.S. government scientists say they've determined controlled burning of some Western forests might help reduce the nation's carbon footprint.
The study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research found such burnings -- used by forest managers to reduce underbrush and protect bigger trees -- release substantially less carbon dioxide emissions than do wildfires of the same size.
"It appears that prescribed burns can be an important piece of a climate change strategy," says Christine Wiedinmyer, lead author of the study. "If we reintroduce fires into our ecosystems, we may be able to protect larger trees and significantly reduce the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere by major wildfires."
Drawing on satellite observations and computer models of emissions, the researchers said they concluded widespread prescribed burns can reduce fire emissions of carbon dioxide in the Western states by up to 25 percent and by as much as 60 percent in certain forest systems.
The researchers said wildfires often destroy large trees that store significant amounts of carbon while controlled fires are designed to burn underbrush and small trees, which store less carbon. By clearing the underbrush, the controlled burns reduce the chances of subsequent high-severity wildfires, thereby protecting large trees and keeping more carbon locked in the forest.
The National Science Foundation-funded study is detailed in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.