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Wildfires Spit Climate Changing Tar Balls

By Tim Wall (Discovery) - July 10, 2013

Currently in the United States, major wildfires burn in Colorado, Alaska, California, Arizona and near Las Vegas, Nevada. The deadly wildfires torching the western states and other regions may add to climate change more than previously thought.

The discovery of wildfires’ greater global warming threat came after scientists made the best of a burned situation.

In 2011 a wildfire in New Mexico forced the evacuation of Los Alamos National Laboratory. When the scientists returned they collected and studied samples of the smoke and soot from the smoldering fire for more than 10 days.

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Burning trees and other plants release much of the carbon that the vegetation stored during its life. The Los Alamos study, published in Nature Communications, found that the carbon released during the New Mexico fire had formed many tiny carbon-rich tar balls. The tar balls were 10 times more common than soot, another carbon-rich substance, in the fire’s emissions.

Analysis of the carbon-containing particles in the smoke revealed that their chemical composition may make them more effective at increasing global warming than previous thought.

“We’ve found that substances resembling tar balls dominate, and even the soot is coated by organics that focus sunlight,” said Los Alamos senior scientist Manvendra Dubey in a press release, “Both components can potentially increase climate warming by increased light absorption.”

Earlier computerized climate change models didn’t incorporate the abundance of tar balls or the effects of the organic coating on soot particles. As climate change dries out regions such as the American Southwest, more fires could add to a positive feedback loop by increasing warming and drying, leading to yet more fires.

“The fact that we are experiencing more fires and that climate change may increase fire frequency underscores the need to include these specialized particles in the computer models, and our results show how this can be done,” Dubey said.