Our forests are on fire again, media reported. In appearance, everything is clear: the forest is dying and will soon die completely. If not for one "but": according to scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals, the biomass of our forests has grown by almost 39% over 26 years. And this is an absolutely inconceivable, record increase - which, of course, does not negate the damage from fires for settlements. Who to believe: the smoke of fires from the pages of the media or scientists? And why is the authorities' fight against fires likely to make the situation worse? Let's try to figure it out.
At school, we are told the most exotic things that almost no one will encounter in life: for example, about large and small circles of blood circulation. But teachers do not cover many things about the world around us, including the most urgent ones. Take forests: almost none of us at school were told that the northern forests that dominate Russia are not sustainable. This means that they cannot exist without certain external events. And this significantly distinguishes them from more southern forests - for example, the jungle.
A sustainable ecosystem takes about as much from the environment as it returns to it. This is how the jungle lives. Say, at first, their trees take some carbon dioxide from the air, and from the soil - so much phosphorus. Then the trees die, and termites with fungi decompose their wood into components. CO2 is returned to the air and phosphorus is returned to the soil. Here young trees use it again, and life does not stop.
It doesn't work for us. Two-thirds of Russia is permafrost, and more than half of our forests grow on it. The remaining third of Russia seems to be not permafrost, but normal termites will not live here: it is still too cold. And local insects do not really know how to decompose cellulose.
Mushrooms in Russia are also not easy. It is too difficult to decompose the wood of dead trees completely. Indeed, for the growth of mushrooms, warm and humid weather is needed. In practice, a tree that has fallen in the taiga lies in a cold and dry climate. From this, a huge part of CO2, phosphorus and other things bound to them sinks into the permafrost earth and thereby disappears from the biological world.
If all the forests in the world were like the Russian northern ones, sooner or later the trees on our planet would receive a serious blow. CO2 would simply migrate into the soil, its concentration would fall below 150 ppm, and with these parameters, trees do not grow. Something like this almost happened in the last ice age, when the CO2 in the atmosphere was 180 parts per million. Then, we will remind, the forests on the planet were preserved in a few isolated islands - and, if not for the warming, they never got out of them.
Our forests remove a huge amount of substances necessary for life from biological circulation, and this process is far from painless for themselves. Removal of phosphorus and nitrogen from the soil noticeably impoverishes it and worsens the chances of young larches for rapid growth.
This is why northern forests, unlike jungles, need three things.
Fires, insects and diseases: three whales the northern forest cannot live without
In our country, it is customary to describe fires, tree beetles and tree diseases as a kind of pestilence and apocalypse. Well, as is customary - in the media (subject scientists have a different point of view). But if we open the Canadian government websites on the same topic, we can easily notice this section: "Why do forests need fires, pests and diseases?"
By the way, it is a pity that the government bodies in Russia are not aware of the answers to these questions. But let's continue. So why is all this necessary?
Fires help larches and other trees survive in the difficult conditions of boreal forests. In the north, there is no one to break down cellulose - it is hard for fungi, there is no substitute for termites at all. But the fire breaks it down extremely quickly, returning to the soil and a significant part of the nitrogen and phosphorus "packed" in it, assimilated by trees. At the same time, most of the carbon dioxide that the plant absorbed during its growth is released into the atmosphere.
One glance at the typical larch taiga is enough to notice that it is well adapted to fire. (And by the way, although we are talking about larch, since it accounts for 35% of the area of Russian forests, pine (another 15%) and a number of other trees are also replaced by competitors without regular fires:) As Doctor of Biological Sciences Vyacheslav Kharuk notes, “complete death plantations occur only on a quarter of the territory covered by ground forest fires.
The thing is that larch normally grows sparsely enough, and this allows you to avoid a top fire that destroys the crowns. Ground fire is much less likely to kill most trees - including because of the thick bark of larch. As a result, three quarters of the taiga "burnt out" during a ground fire does not actually burn out anywhere. In case of fires in general (including raised ones), about half of the forests survive, which biologists know, but not the media or Greenpeace.
But after the fire, the temperature of the upper permafrost layer rises sharply. And for trees this is a huge plus: after all, their root system can develop only outside the permafrost layer, in that part of the soil that thaws in summer. Normally, this is a few tens of centimeters. But immediately after a forest fire, the permafrost thaws somewhat (due to heating by fire). In addition, tree crowns do not shade the soil, allowing it to warm up more. Therefore, the depth of the layer thaws in summer grows to 1.5-2.0 meters - a large value that allows trees to create a normal root system and use nitrogen and phosphorus not from the upper 30 centimeters, but from a thicker layer.
Total: as Vyacheslav Kharuk accurately notes, "there is no forest without fire." Of course, this does not apply to the Amazonian jungle, but to typical Russian forests - in them it is one hundred percent true. There are no areas of taiga that would not burn out. The northernmost parts of the taiga, in principle, could not exist without fires destroying the layer of moss and lichens. They insulate the soil too well, which is why the permafrost under them thaws very little, and trees would not be able to grow here if fires sometimes did not eliminate the heat-insulating layer of mosses.
Scientists note: “The peculiarity of larch forests growing on permafrost soils is that as the permafrost rises, the inflow of nutrients decreases and, as a result, the annual growth of trees decreases. Along with this, the amount of undergrowth sharply decreases: light larch seeds, “hanging” on a layer of moss, are not able to “reach” the soil during germination”. Hence the conclusion:
"If the northern forests do not burn, they will not grow, it is periodic fires that ensure the very existence of vast northern forests in the permafrost zone, contributing to their reproduction and rejuvenation" - this is, in fact, a common truth that must be kept in mind every time when you hear about the taiga fire.
The northern taiga lives in a war mode: trees must reclaim nutrients from the permafrost, but the growth of trees allows the permafrost to again take away trace elements from the trees. Larch is a phoenix, the existence of which is impossible without fire. Considering that it (and other "fire-loving" species) accounts for the bulk of the taiga, all taiga forests as a whole should be considered a phoenix.
By the way, this means that fires will spread further and further north - to where the tundra used to be. Indeed, right now the taiga is advancing on the tundra - therefore, it brings with it inevitable fires.
Well, taiga is impossible without fires. But why is Greenpeace sounding the alarm?
The point of view of scientists is clear and understandable. But why does the press come across such statements: “Environmentalists sound the alarm and predict the disappearance of the taiga in Russia. Due to large-scale forest fires, the country may lose the variety of conifers in the next 20-30 years. Alexey Yaroshenko, head of the Greenpeace forestry program, shared these concerns with journalists.
According to him, with the same burning intensity, the modern taiga will disappear in the coming decades. But this can happen even faster if the scale of forest fires does not decrease."
The reasons for this are very simple. Science gives a person an extremely large amount of knowledge, but only those who are interested in it can take it with them. Greenpeace employees, the media and many others do not always belong to this category of citizens. Let's look through a typical publication of this kind:
“The country is now blazing 6, 6 million hectares of forest. The territory is like half of Germany. "
It is easy to see what the author is writing without really delving into the topic. The area of Germany is 35, 74 million hectares. Half of them is 17, 87 million, and not 6, 6 million hectares. Finally, he does not write anywhere that half of the blazing taiga will not burn, but will survive. But scientists regularly explain this.
Let us listen to the deputy director of the Institute for Biological Problems of Cryolithozone of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Doctor of Biological Sciences Alexander Isaev: “There are such trees on which there are marks of up to 15 forest fires, but they survived”.
As a result of reading the media and Greenpeace's statements, an unambiguous picture is formed in the minds of our citizens. This year, "half of Germany" was burned down, and last year, half of Germany. It turns out that Greenpeace is right: at such a rate in 20-30 years, the area of all forests in Russia should end.
But instead, their biomass experienced record growth
A different picture appears to the eyes of scientists. In July 2021, Scientific Reports published an article unnoticed by the Russian media. She argued that the biomass of the Russian forest in 1988-2014 increased by 39%, although the area formally remained practically unchanged. (The article mainly considers those areas that do not belong to overgrown agricultural land). Scientific work was able to establish these facts not only due to satellite images showing the expansion of forests, but also due to the analysis of the growth of biomass per unit area of the Russian forest. Such an analysis was carried out in typical forest areas by ground inspection.
The results of the work in figures: in 1988 the volume of forest in cubic meters of wood was 81.7 billion (excluding shrubs), and by 2014 - 111 billion. It is interesting, because before that the official figures for the volume of Russian forest in 2014 were 79.9 billion cubic meters. That is, the new work literally in one moment increased the volume of our forests by 39%.
These are huge quantities. It turns out that for 1988-2014 the net increase (excluding dying trees) of forest biomass in Russia exceeded three tons per capita annually.
However, this is not surprising for our regular readers. We have written more than once: anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide launched on the planet the most powerful process of global greening, which has not been equal on Earth for at least 54 thousand years. And maybe a couple of million years. The current overgrowth of the planet with terrestrial plants is proceeding unusually quickly. Back in 1900, green land biomass was 23.7% less than it is today. Moreover, the process is accelerating: after 2000, green biomass increases by 1.2% per year.
The reasons are the same as the increase in agricultural yields from carbon dioxide emissions: plants feed on CO2 from the air. The more it is, the more food they have. And, as shown by special scientific works, the effect does not disappear over time.
This process forces almost all terrestrial plants to grow, but especially trees. The fact is that trees need carbon dioxide more than many grasses: they use C3 photosynthesis, which requires more carbon dioxide than C4 photosynthesis in, for example, corn. That is, global greening is the strongest spur to the growth of forests.
This is doubly true for Russian forests. As you know, their biomass per unit area decreases with movement to the north: it is more difficult for them to grow in a cold environment. The rapid rise in temperatures allows the taiga to both raise biomass per hectare and move further and further north into the former tundra. Actually, this is nothing new: four to nine thousand years ago, in the Holocene climatic optimum, the present tundra did not exist, and its place was occupied by forests (and stumps from them in the Russian tundra can still be found). Today's warming is simply returning forests to where the cold once squeezed them out.
It should be understood: the main area of forest fires in our country belongs to the northern, taiga forests. This is precisely where the population is smallest, where fires are burned less, and where the chances of anthropogenic ignition are the smallest. Whether there is a long-term increase in the frequency of fires is a very difficult question. 200 years ago, there was no monitoring from satellites, and there were problems with dense population. The peak fires of 1915 were definitely larger than any fire in the 21st century, but there is no complete understanding of the average area of fires per year.
However, logically, the frequency of taiga fires should grow here. Even if this did not happen in practice, it is inevitable in the future. The point is that the more productive the taiga, the greater its biomass, the more often it needs fires. Because otherwise it will remove more nitrogen and phosphorus from the soil, and return less and less. In addition, it will increasingly shade the soil, contributing to the "rise" of permafrost from the depths. This means cutting back on the layer of soil available to itself. In other words, an increase in the biomass of Russian forests by 39% makes an increase in the frequency of forest fires in our country almost inevitable. As, by the way, and the flourishing of insect pests (specializing in trees) and diseases. Both of them play a role similar to fires: they accelerate the return of nitrogen and phosphorus to the soil, and also reduce the shading of the “forest bottom,” the soil on which trees grow.
Global greening specifically for Russia - as opposed to, for example, Brazil or Africa - means an increase in the frequency of fires from natural causes. The main part of our forests requires fire, without its waves they will not be able to live normally. We must be prepared for fires: the more biomass of Russian forests is, the more often they will burn, logically.
It is important to understand: although the main part of our forest area is taiga, the biomass growth in the southern forests, as can be clearly seen on the map, is also very high. Yes, the climate here is more humid, but dry years still happen, so over time, fires may become more frequent in the southern, much more densely populated regions of Russia.
What will happen to the animals
Officially, there are more than 800 million hectares of forests in Russia - in fact, more, because this figure does not take into account the wooded agricultural lands that were cultivated in Soviet times. But let's forget about them: let's assume that the official figure of 800 million hectares is correct. This means that even the fires of 1915 - not to mention the weaker modern ones - never passed more than 2-3% of the total area of Russian forests. Let's take into account that some of these fires are grassroots, that is, they are normally slow, that is, they do not kill large animals: they simply run away from the fire. Riding fires in the wind are much more dangerous, and in some cases kill animals if they cannot escape from them.
But even if every year in Russia there were as many forest fires as in the distant 1915, and if fires always killed all living things in the affected forests, they would leave 97-98% of all animals alive. Given the normal rate of reproduction in the animal kingdom, it is clear that such phenomena cannot threaten the number of the overwhelming majority of taiga inhabitants.
And this is quite logical: there have always been fires in the larch taiga, and without fires this ecosystem simply would not have survived. If so, the taiga species have a vast experience of survival in the midst of fires. Expecting them to disappear from this phenomenon (or at least a decrease in diversity) is a waste of time.
But what about the threat to humans?
The essential problem of the above picture is that taiga - and broad-leaved forests as well - do not exist on their own, but in the same landscape with people. What should they do in connection with the growth of the biomass of our forests?
This question has two answers. First: in places where fire does not interfere with a person, you do not need to do anything with it. Larch trees were on Earth before us, and they have every right to flourish (of course, in a figurative sense, because these are not flowering plants). Yes, we people don't like that they need fires for that. But our aesthetic preferences are our problems. And larch is a living nature, and it has no such preferences.
The second answer: where fires threaten to burn down a village or smoke a large city, they must be fought with. Just don't think that you can do it by running with buckets or pouring fires from the air. All this looks very impressive and helps on micro-scale, but big problems cannot be solved that way. If a thousand square kilometers are burning near Yakutsk, no planes will be enough to extinguish them.
However, it is possible to fight fires near settlements, and one of the main recipes here is simple: controlled sanitary felling and burning. Let us emphasize right away: they have nothing to do with the bursts of grass that are set off every spring by the energetic, but poorly educated part of Russians. Grass burns are undoubtedly evil, reducing biodiversity and contributing to the selection of "fire-loving" herbaceous plants, such as the same invasive Canadian goldenrod.
But cutting down and, where it is more expedient, sanitary burning of stripes in woody vegetation is a different matter. Northern forests, and so within the natural cycle, should burn out from time to time. But by creating a “fire barrier” near a settlement or by dividing a forest with it, people can reduce the risk of particularly large fires that would make the air of cities hazardous to health.
In the European part of Russia, forest burning is less important. Deciduous forests do not need them: they, in contrast to taiga, are more stable. Here fungi decompose wood more completely, and even without regular fires, the soil will not turn into a thin "permafrost" layer, in which there will be a deficiency of both phosphorus and nitrogen.
But the likelihood of fires will grow here too. The reason is the same increase in biomass, in a dangerous neighborhood with drunk tourists making fires in fairly dry forests, even in July without rain. Any Muscovite who remembers 2010 knows what this can lead to.
Despite the fact that controlled burning and cutting of protective zones in the middle lane are irrelevant, certain measures are possible here as well. Among the key ones is the protection of beavers from attempts to catch them or squeeze them out of their summer cottages. Usually summer residents sincerely do not like these rodents. They put dams on any stream and greatly raise the level of groundwater, flooding part of the country houses. Fortunately, those are almost always built without the slightest consideration of hydrology - and very often in lowlands.
As unpleasant as such flooding is, it should be preferred to a forest fire. We have already written: the main reason for the spike in deaths in Moscow in 2010 was not the temperature, but the smoke of fires. But in neighboring regions, where there are fewer dachas and more beavers, there were much fewer fires: beavers dammed peatlands abandoned during the Soviet era, which saved them from fires.
What will the future be like?
We can confidently say that the recipes voiced above will not be implemented. Yes, letting the taiga burn away from cities and creating fire barriers near cities is the simplest, most inexpensive and scientifically sound solution. But, as Vyacheslav Kharuk correctly notes,
"So far, this approach to the problem of the increasing burning of forests and the risks of increasing losses from forest fires does not find proper understanding not only among politicians, but also among the public."
We will venture to suggest: and will not find it in the future. It should be understood here that the typical politician is used to being active. It seems to him that the more you do in some area, the better. It is from such an irrepressible itch that the largest tragedies of the last century occur, such as the fight against DDT. The idea “do not prevent the forests from burning” and “must be extinguished by the preventive creation of protective zones where the trees are burnt or cut down” is too unusual for the typical style of thinking of a typical politician, not to mention a public activist.
If we proceed from their usual style of thinking, fires must be fought - and, preferably, not only around cities. But everywhere and everywhere - buying more aircraft of the Be-200 type, creating more and more numerous fire services, extinguishing forests in case of any fire, even one that does not threaten people in any way.
This is not a dry theory - this is an observation of the real history of fire fighting in the West. At the beginning of the 20th century, the US authorities took care of it, and since then they have fought the fires there so diligently that now there is a lot of "standing" forest there. A large number of trunks of old trees fell, but did not burn down. In English, this is called "the accumulation of fuel for forest fires" and this is one of the main reasons for the increase in the intensity of fires in the United States in the past decades.
If we remember that global greening does not sleep, then we can easily understand that over time there will be more and more such “fuel for fires”. Therefore, in the future, fires will be more and more dangerous. If the "fuel" did not accumulate, but burned out in small, local fires every few years, then both the strength and the danger to people in forest fires would be much less, which Western scientists themselves have noted more than once.
But modern society is somewhat like a diplodocus. His brain is small and high. And the body is big and below. The distance between them is large, which is why the signals pass with a significant delay and not in full. The opinion of scientists simply does not reach Western politicians and environmentalists, who are actively fighting against fires in all their manifestations.
The situation in Russia is fundamentally no different. This is easy to see from the statements of the authorities about the unprecedented scale of the Siberian fires, which, as we noted above, do not correspond to reality. The special knowledge of forest biologists will remain inside the heads of biologists. Everyone else will buy firefighting planes and complain about the increasing scale of wildfires. Not noticing that the very attempts to crush them over time make the fires stronger and stronger.