What could have caused pre-industrial biomass burning emissions to exceed current rates?
1Faculty of Earth and Life Sciences, VU University Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
2Department of Meteorology and Air Quality, Wageningen University, Wageningen, The Netherlands
3Department of Geographical Sciences, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, USA
Abstract. Recent studies based on trace gas mixing ratios in ice cores and charcoal data indicate that biomass burning emissions over the past millennium exceeded contemporary emissions by up to a factor of 4 for certain time periods. This is surprising because various sources of biomass burning are linked with population density, which has increased over the past centuries. Here we have analyzed how emissions from several biomass burning sources could have fluctuated to yield emissions that are in correspondence with recent results based on ice core mixing ratios of carbon monoxide (CO) and its isotopic signature measured at South Pole station (SPO). Based on estimates of contemporary fire emissions and the TM5 chemical transport model, we found that CO mixing ratios at SPO are more sensitive to emissions from South America and Australia than from Africa, and are relatively insensitive to emissions from the Northern Hemisphere. We then explored how various biomass burning sources may have varied over the past centuries and what the resulting emissions and corresponding CO mixing ratio at SPO would be, using population density variations to reconstruct sources driven by humans (e.g. fuelwood burning) and a new model to relate savanna emissions to changes in fire return times. We found that to match the observed ice core CO data all savannas in the Southern Hemisphere had to burn annually, or bi-annually in combination with deforestation and slash and burn agriculture matching current levels despite much lower population densities and lack of machinery to aid the deforestation process. While possible, these scenarios are unlikely and in conflict with current literature. However, we do show the large potential for increased emissions from savannas in a pre-industrial world. This is mainly because in the past, fuel beds were probably less fragmented compared to the current situation; we show that the majority of savannas have not burned in the past 10 yr, even in Africa which is considered "the burning continent". Our new modelling results, together with existing literature, indicate that no definitive conclusions can be drawn about unprecedentedly high or low biomass burning rates from current data analyses.