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Scientists in mission to count carbon cost of country's escalating wildfires

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Wildfire: Firefighters work to control a blaze that destroyed 300 hectares in Co Wicklow last week. Photo: courtesy of Coillte

Wildfire: Firefighters work to control a blaze that destroyed 300 hectares in Co Wicklow last week. Photo: courtesy of Coillte

Wildfire: Firefighters work to control a blaze that destroyed 300 hectares in Co Wicklow last week. Photo: courtesy of Coillte

A team of scientists is embarking on a two-year study to find out how much greenhouse gas is released by wildfires in Ireland.

The project will involve attending bog and gorse fires as they happen to capture air samples and other data in real time.

Slabs of peatland will also be sent to a special fire investigation chamber in Germany for burning and analysis.

Dr Dean Venables, of University College Cork (UCC), one of the FLARES (Fire, Land and Atmospheric Remote Sensing of Emissions) team, said information on emissions from wildfires, in particular peat fires, in Ireland was sparse.

"My expectation is that fire emissions would be significant," he said. "They would bring up the national emissions by a certain factor."

That's bad news for Ireland which is struggling to contain rising emissions, never mind achieve the reductions required under EU commitments and the international Paris Agreement.

It also adds to the urgency for tackling wildfires and illegal out-of-season agricultural burning which have already destroyed thousands of acres of wilderness this spring.

Forest fires are easier to quantify. In 2017, 1,500 hectares of forest was lost with an estimated quarter of a million tonnes of carbon and other greenhouse gases emitted.

But the amount of peatland lost is believed to have been anything from three to six times bigger and emissions could vary widely, depending on the precise nature of the vegetation and its condition.

A fire that burned for several days in west Wicklow last week destroyed 300 hectares and was just one of dozens in a few weeks.

Ireland in total emits 60 million tonnes of carbon and other greenhouse gases a year.

FLARES is a multidisciplinary effort funded by the Environmental Protection Agency. Dr Fiona Cawkwell, also from UCC, will be leading the remote sensing element.

Current satellite technology used to monitor fires is patchy. It often does not pick up on small fires, it has difficulty discerning land type, and clouds can obscure fires completely.

Dr Cawkwell is working on solutions to that while Dr Venables is focusing on capturing and analysing samples at the heart of the combustion to get a better picture of what exactly is being released into the air.

"One of the challenges with remote satellites is that you can get a measure of the total amount of pollutants through a column of air but what really matters for humans is the one to two metres above the ground, so we'll try to measure that," he said. He is concerned that while greenhouse gases are not being accurately measured, there is even less certainty about the longer term emissions that result from partially burnt particles hanging around in the air where they slowly oxidise and release gases. He will also measure nitrogen oxide and other air pollutants that contribute to 1,200 premature deaths here each year.

"We are in a pandemic that is essentially a respiratory disease and anything that makes it harder to take a breath is problematic," he said.

"As an atmospheric scientist, it strikes me that fire is wonderful and important but it has been the cause of so much of our environmental problems.

"Whether it's the fire in your car, the fire in our power stations, the fire in our chimneys or the fire on the hill - all these fires are what's contributing to poor air conditions and the sorts of emissions that are driving climate change."

Irish Independent