Feeding the Flames

When I recently set out to see what science has to say about the likelihood of more giant fires in the western U.S and Australia, I found repeated predictions of deep droughts and epic fires. Don’t worry, instead of explaining the sad science of chronic presses and acute pulses, anomalies, chronologies, and trajectories, I’m instead going to talk about the hope right under our feet.

Most scientific forecasts paint a picture of a dangerous hellscape that will be our (and our children’s) daily reality in twenty years. The more carbon plucked from the ground and belched into the air, the more ugly and inhospitable our world will become. This deeply foreboding but largely ignored science makes me feel crippled with despair.

I imagine our fossil fuel habit as a foot on the gas pedal of vehicle Earth. As we keep picking up speed and the global temperature keeps rising, our vehicle catapults and careens with increasing force. The road conditions vary seasonally and annually but the probability of colliding with extreme droughts and megafires is soaring.

One morning, in the midst of my future fire research, I spotted a kindred, discouraged soul when I read a tweet from climate scientist, Andrew Dessler, on the Groundhog Day nature of his work:

You can find the link to the original Tweet here

After ‘enjoying’ this tweet with my coffee, I dragged my defeated cynicism around all day, but then, that night, I watched the beautiful and brilliant film ‘Kiss the Ground’. It’s a film about the climate crisis, but one which focuses on tangible solutions rather than doom and gloom. It reminded me that a different future exists, where we can put the brakes on and create health and wealth by building soil carbon stores. This is already happening and it’s as simple as making ecosystems less crunchy and more squishy. 

As stated in ‘Kiss the Ground’, “a covered planet is a healthy planet.” Vegetation offers comfort in the form of shade but it is also a wet blanket. As plants photosynthesize, the wet breath they exhale creates a humid microclimate. The moisture trapped and recirculating under the forest canopy condenses as dew, nurtures other plants, and generally hydrates the system. The moisture that escapes the clutches of the local plants enters the shallow atmosphere and drips from the sky somewhere downwind. It’s a circular economy where green makes green, with these positive feedback loops maximising water efficiency and reuse.

When we reduce hazardous fuels in a fire-prone ecosystem, we impose social distancing to break up the continuity of the flammable vegetation. Yet this splintering comes at a cost. As the protective blanket of the canopy is cleaved open, the system takes in more sun and loses more moisture.

Cholla cactus with degraded ‘desert pavement’ soil. (Image Credit: Krista Bonfantine, CC BY-SA 2.0)

TWO THIRDS of our planet is on its way to being a desert RIGHT NOW. 

The good news is that there are tangible solutions to this crisis, even in parts of the world that are the hardest hit by climate change. Dr. Wangari Maathai recognized the connection between shrinking forests and growing deserts in her native Kenya. In response to the environmental and social collapse she witnessed, she founded the Green Belt Movement to help women plant and sustain trees. Since its inception, the group has planted more than 50 million trees across Kenya and Dr. Maathai was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.

Trees serve as water towers and humidifiers but the trees are only one part of holding back the desert. The way that ecosystems retain rain is also about the soil. Spongy soil that grabs and stores water is healthy, living soil.

One of the key themes in ‘Kiss the Ground’ is the critical role of soil microorganisms as partners in our internal and external food systems. In another great movie, ‘The Symphony of the Soil’, soil biologist Dr. Elaine Ingham says that in the soil, “It’s Times Square on New Year’s Eve, all the time.” She explains how plants keep the party rolling by delivering ‘cakes and cookies’ to the soil microbes in the form of simple sugars. The microbes, in turn, share nutrients that the plants are unable to acquire without their fungal or bacterial friends. When vegetation is removed, the party stops. 

Fungal fruiting bodies emerging from lightly burned soil. (Image Credit: Krista Bonfantine, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The marriage between the plants and their microbial partners can be nurtured to bring water and carbon into the soil. Different systems call for different practices but there are many ways to push the boundaries of the canopy and shrink the crispy, exposed margins where desert is on the move. Fire is one of the best tools for doing this.

Soft fire is the ultimate soil party starter. Soft fire flames lap instead of roar and cruise but don’t completely consume. We tend to focus on the aboveground biomass ‘lost’ to fire with little thought of the belowground biomass gained from fire. Gentle pruning by fire stimulates growth in fire-adapted plants, both above and below ground. The plants and the recycled nutrients fuel the soil party which builds the sponge. The softer the sponge, the more carbon that is being stored in the ground instead of the air. We need to befriend fire as a tool for coaxing carbon and water into the soil. Rather than cutting trees and building deserts as we attempt to fireproof forests, we need to look at new ways of nurturing ecosystems with fire.

Krista Bonfantine is a PhD student at Deakin University studying the effectiveness of environmental flows using DNA metabarcoding and citizen science. Her background includes water and fire management and her passion is connecting science and society for a better, wetter world. Learn more on her website or follow her on Twitter.

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