Incorrect interpretation of carbon mass balance biases global vegetation fire emission estimates

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Nature Communications, 2016, 7
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© 2016, Nature Publishing Group. All rights reserved. Vegetation fires are a complex phenomenon in the Earth system with many global impacts, including influences on global climate. Estimating carbon emissions from vegetation fires relies on a carbon mass balance technique that has evolved with two different interpretations. Databases of global vegetation fire emissions use an approach based on 'consumed biomass', which is an approximation to the biogeochemically correct 'burnt carbon' approach. Here we show that applying the 'consumed biomass' approach to global emissions from vegetation fires leads to annual overestimates of carbon emitted to the atmosphere by 4.0% or 100 Tg compared with the 'burnt carbon' approach. The required correction is significant and represents ∼9% of the net global forest carbon sink estimated annually. Vegetation fire emission studies should use the 'burnt carbon' approach to quantify and understand the role of this burnt carbon, which is not emitted to the atmosphere, as a sink enriched in carbon.
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