Improved estimates of preindustrial biomass burning reduce the magnitude of aerosol climate forcing in the Southern Hemisphere

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Science Advances  28 May 2021:
Vol. 7, no. 22, eabc1379
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abc1379


Fire plays a pivotal role in shaping terrestrial ecosystems and the chemical composition of the atmosphere and thus influences Earth’s climate. The trend and magnitude of fire activity over the past few centuries are controversial, which hinders understanding of preindustrial to present-day aerosol radiative forcing. Here, we present evidence from records of 14 Antarctic ice cores and 1 central Andean ice core, suggesting that historical fire activity in the Southern Hemisphere (SH) exceeded present-day levels. To understand this observation, we use a global fire model to show that overall SH fire emissions could have declined by 30% over the 20th century, possibly because of the rapid expansion of land use for agriculture and animal production in middle to high latitudes. Radiative forcing calculations suggest that the decreasing trend in SH fire emissions over the past century largely compensates for the cooling effect of increasing aerosols from fossil fuel and biofuel sources.

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