Australian news, and some related international items

Welcome to the ‘Pyrocene,’ an Epoch of Runaway Fire

Welcome to the ‘Pyrocene,’ an Epoch of Runaway Fire

Fire scholar Stephen J. Pyne proposes a pyrocentric view of the last 10,000 years — and warns that California’s wildfires herald a very combustible future. Bloomberg City Lab By Laura Bliss, August 27, 2020   It isn’t just California that’s burning. This summer, smoke from massive wildfires in Siberia choked skies as far as Alaska and set new pollution records, in a second consecutive year of unprecedented blazes in the Arctic Circle. Rising temperatures, a loss of precipitation, and parched vegetation are hallmarks of climate change, scientists say, as are the increasingly extreme wildfires that result, from the arid Western U.S. to some of coldest places on Earth.

Yet these infernos are but one dimension of a vast human geography of fire. That’s according to Stephen J. Pyne, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University and former wildland firefighter with more than 30 books to his name, most of which, as he writes, “make fire a protagonist.” His forthcoming book proposes that the past 10,000-12,000 years — an epoch officially known as the Holocene, starting at the end of the last Ice Age — are coterminous with what he calls the “Pyrocene.” The book, built on a 2015 essay called “The Fire Age” published in Aeon, will summarize how the destiny of Homo sapiens is tied to its habit of burning things.  ……….
If the Pyrocene is our past and present, what does it mean for the future? CityLab spoke with Pyne over the phone on Monday.
Pyne.   ………..looking at things from a fire perspective helps us see how fire is manifesting and how fire, particularly the human use of it, is providing the power source for the Anthropocene.
 Earth is a uniquely fire planet, the only one that we know has had fire ever since it has had terrestrial vegetation.  The manipulation of fire is also unique to humans — no other animal does that. It’s our ecological signature. We underwent a major acceleration when we began burning fossil fuels. When you add up all of the changes that we’re producing, it looks like we’re entering an ice age for fire. From sea level rise, to mass extinctions, to huge shifts in biogeography, add it up and it looks like we’re replacing the ice ages of the Pleistocene with a fire age that I’m calling the Pyrocene.
The quest for fire was always to find things to burn and ways to burn it, and now we’ve got an unbounded amount of combustibles and ways to burn but no place for the effluent to go — it’s overloaded the atmosphere and oceans. So it doesn’t absolve us at all. It lays it right on us, because even climate history is now a subnarrative of a longer fire history, which sees us becoming a geologic force. ……….

We have always had what I call “living landscapes,” which are the ones we live in, with growing stuff and dead stuff on the surface. The fires burning in California right now are fires in living landscapes. Then I offer the term “lithic landscape,” which shows a continuity between us burning in one setting and then another. These are the fossil landscapes buried in the past that we’re now burning in the present, with all kinds of strange interactions that we don’t understand.

In the book, I show how that transition occurred and how it has affected all the landscapes we live in. One example is how fire shapes our ability to sprawl. It used to be that our communities were surrounded by worked agricultural landscapes, which involved  burning fields. That created an environment with buffers around towns [that protected them from wildfires]. Now most of that is gone, and we can go cheek-to-jowl right up against a wildland setting by bringing in food from elsewhere. These communities become landscapes for burning. ………..
We may be in a runaway fire age unless we can shut down our fossil-fuel burning enough to allow the climate to stabilize. As we do that, we also have to manage the landscape better. That doesn’t mean clear-cutting forests. It means thinning. It means the careful manipulation of our landscapes. That also means more controlled burning. Some places we’d do well to burn every year or every few years, others every five to ten. There are areas where we will still have to muster our firefighting capabilities. But right now we have too much of the wrong kind of fire, too little of the right kind of fire, and way too much fossil fuel combustion overall. The paradox is that we need to shut off the burning of fossil fuels, but accelerate the burning of living landscapes.

We can also certainly prevent cities from burning. There is no reason to see them burn like they are. We can shut down the nastier ignition sources like power lines by reinvesting in our grids. We can reimagine how we power our cities: If we had more solar or local power sources, then you would not need [a spread-out electrical grid].

I also think there needs to be a sense of recognition that fire is here to stay, and that we need to work with it in ways that don’t destroy us, or in ways that turn tame fires into feral fires, which is what we have done. Living with fire is an awkward phrase, but it’s true. Unlike Covid-19, there’s no vaccine possible.


August 31, 2020 - Posted by | General News

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