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Fires and Smoke in Far Eastern Russia
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Fires and Smoke in Far Eastern Russia

April 17, 2013
Smoke from numerous fires (shown as red dots) obscure the left (Eastern) portion of this image of the Russian Federation, close to the island of Sakhalin and the country of Japan. In recent years, researchers have emphasized the importance of boreal (Northern) forests as a reservoir for carbon, which is related to the problem of global warming. The burning of forests, mostly in the tropics, as well the combustion of fossil fuels, mostly gasoline in automobiles, has led to increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It, in combination with other gases, forms a sort of blanket or insulation as solar radiation passes into but not out of the atmosphere, trapping heat and potentially warming the Earth – like a greenhouse does. Scientists have good estimates of how much carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere and how much is stored there, as well as decent estimates of how much carbon there is in the oceans, but the bookkeeping does not quite add up; it seems highly like that the terrestrial, or land surface, component of the biosphere is not as well known as the others. The discrepancy is known as the “missing carbon” or “the missing sink”. The likely culprits are forests; trees soak up carbon dioxide as they grow, turning it into living tissue. When they die, some of the carbon ends up in the soil. Accurate measurements of how much carbon is stored in forests will reduce a great deal of our uncertainty about the carbon cycle and improve our understanding of global warming. Satellite images such as this one are used by scientists to measure the impacts of fire and other disturbances in this very important part of the world. Credit: Jeff Schmaltz