Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire & It’s Deadly

The first global estimates of deaths from non-domestic smoke exposure are surprisingly high, say researchers, who warn that casualties will increase as temperatures rise because of climate change.  The majority of deaths caused by smoke inhalation from landscape fires are in Sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia, according to a study presented at a major science conference. And a crazy idea from a scientist:  Could elephants be introduced to help reduce out of control bush fires in Australia?  Read More

Gozde Zorlu for Science and Development Network (23 February 2012):

Smoke from landscape fires kills thousands in Africa and Asia

The first global estimates of deaths from non-domestic smoke exposure are surprisingly high, say researchers, who warn the casualties will increase as temperatures rise because of climate change.

The majority of deaths caused by smoke inhalation from landscape fires are in Sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia, according to a study presented at a major science conference last week.

The study estimates that most of the 339,000 deaths each year between 1997 and 2006 came from these two regions.

Fay Johnston, a researcher at the University of Tasmania, Australia who led the study, said she was surprised the figures were so high given the intermittent nature of smoke exposure.

She was speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in Vancouver, Canada last week (18 February), the same day as her study was published in Environmental Health Perspectives.

Using data on fire emissions, mortality rates, population density and weather conditions, the team assessed how small particles in wildfire smoke affect health.

They included fires from agricultural burning, grass fire, peat fire, and tropical deforestation, using a variety of data from global datasets and satellites.

“We have known for a long time that fires release gases and particulate matter with adverse effects on health, but nobody has been able to quantify this for landscape fires until now,” said Guido van der Werf, an earth scientist at the VU University Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, who was not involved in the study.

He told SciDev.Net the predictions still underestimate the number of deaths, as they do not include an assessment of the impact of ozone and nitrogen, which are also produced in fires.

Rising temperatures caused by climate change could lead to more wildfires and even greater health impacts, the study says.

The study concludes that reducing landscape fires would save lives and also help preserve biodiversity and mitigate climate change, since fires emit gases and particles that also contribute to climate change.

But van der Werf said it may not be easy to reduce the number of fires.

“Most of the fires in the tropics are man-made. Humans use fire as a tool to manage the landscape,” he said, adding that it is one of the few options to do so available to people who do not have access to machinery and fertilisers.

Savannah fires are beneficial for nutrient recycling and to prevent trees invading the landscape, he said, and fires are used to clear land for agriculture or other uses.

Dieter Schwela, a researcher at the University of York, in the United Kingdom, said: “This research is significant because it draws attention to a scarcely recognised problem”.

He added that more needs to done to reduce exposure to landscape fire smoke, especially in Africa, where there are no initiatives to address the problem.

Current practices, such as the burning of agricultural residues after harvest in Sub-Saharan Africa and the burning of forests in South-East Asia need to change, Schwela told SciDev.Net.

For this to happen, more research on the actual exposure on regional and local level is needed, added Schwela.

Source: www.scidev.net

Expert advises big fix for jumbo-sized problem

Nicky Phillips on Science in Hobson Bay Weekly ( 2 February 2012):

KANGAROOS and koalas should share this wide, brown land with elephants, a scientist has advised.

David Bowman, of the University of Tasmania, said the world’s biggest herbivores should be brought to Australia to munch their way through the large swath of introduced grasses pushing out native species in northern Australia.

The provocative suggestion by Professor Bowman, a forest ecologist, has been heavily criticised by some scientists as careless, given the potential for the giant creatures to create a greater problem than they will solve, and applauded as a radical solution to a growing environmental conundrum by others.

Regardless, many scientists agree the management of key environmental crises facing large parts of the continent – bushfires and rapidly increasing numbers of feral plants and animals – needs to be rethought.

In his comment piece, published in the journal Nature, Professor Bowman suggests elephants could keep gamba grass, an introduced species invading northern Australia’s savannahs, to manageable levels, a solution that would not only reduce the grass but cut a big fuel source often burnt in wildfires.

“It would be essential to proceed cautiously, with well-designed studies to monitor the effects,” Professor Bowman said.

He also suggested land managers return to traditional patch burning to reduce out-of-control fires, a program already being trialled in the central Kimberley, and use Aboriginal hunters to curb feral animal numbers.

An Australian Laureate Fellow with the school of plant biology at The University of Western Australia, Richard Hobbs, agreed that new and varied approaches to tackle Australia’s ecological management problems were needed but it was highly likely elephants would become a pest.

“Maybe we need to come to terms with the fact that some of our ecosystems may remain changed because of the species we’ve already introduced, rather than introducing more in the hope that they can fix things for us,” he said

A senior lecturer with the native and pest animal unit at the University of Western Sydney, Ricky Spencer, said Professor Bowman’s comments were careless.

“If we did go down the road of introducing elephants to Australia, we had better develop the technology to clone sabre-tooth tigers to eventually control the elephants,” he said.

Professor Bowman admitted his paper was meant to be challenging. “We are going to be driven, whether we like if or not, to think outside the square because current approaches to land management are not working,” he said.

Source: www.hobsonsbayweekly.com.au

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