Peat fire emissions may shed light on climate change

Wildfires, which send hot flames and smoke high into the air, create black carbon emissions associated with climate change and risk to human health. Carbon emissions from wildfires in the contiguous U.S. are expected to increase by 50 percent by 2050 and to double by 2100.


Rajan Chakrabarty

But there’s another major yet often overlooked contributor to carbon emissions. Burning of peatlands — an organic mixture of decayed and compacted leaves — are the largest fires on earth. These high-moisture-containing fuels make up nearly three-fourths of earth’s land mass and are believed to be the largest emitter of carbon from wildfires to the atmosphere. However, unlike flaming fires, peatlands smolder underground for weeks and months and emit a whitish smoke. While plenty is known about the environmental effects of​ black carbon, the effects of peatfire smoke on human health and the climate are largely unstudied and an emerging field.

To study the climatic effects of carbon-containing aerosols emitted from peat fires, Rajan Chakrabarty, PhD, assistant professor of environmental engineering at Washington University in St. Louis’ School of Engineering & Applied Science, has received a three-year, $530,000 grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Brent Williams, PhD, assistant professor of environmental engineering, is a co-investigator on the project, as is Wei Min Hao, PhD, an atmospheric chemist at the USDA Forest Service Fire Sciences Laboratory in Montana.