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A rash of fires has transformed the incredible forest of Siberia from a vast “sink” that absorbs carbon dioxide and releases oxygen into a cause of global warming.

“Suddenly, since 2000, fires have occurred frequently” in the taiga forest in Siberia, said Masami Fukuda, a Hokkaido University professor of snow ice science.

The forest accounts for a fifth of the world’s woodland and covers slightly less than 4 billion hectares.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the quantity of the world’s forests shrank by an average of 7.3 million hectares a year from 2000 to 2005 due to conversion to farmland, among other factors.

According to Russia’s forestry bureau, 23 million hectares of Siberian forest — roughly 60 percent the size of Japan’s land area — were destroyed by fire in summer 2003.

Bonfires and discarded cigarettes were in many cases believed to be the direct cause of the fires.

Rising temperatures in the region are also believed to be behind the increase in the loss of forest. The average annual temperature in Yakutsk in eastern Siberia has risen by 2.5 degrees in the last 100 years.

“The volume of rainfall is on the decline, making it easy for a fire to be triggered,” Fukuda said. “Declines in (Russia’s) ability to manage its forests, including fighting fires, and budget cuts have accelerated (the incidence of fires).”

Fukuda conducted a study in Siberia and found that burning leaves and humus in the soil emitted four times the amount of carbon dioxide as that released by living trees.

Experts say direct sunlight melts permafrost, which then discharges methane, and swamps are created that become sources of methane and carbon dioxide.

Fukuda said a vicious cycle is under way in which a rash of fires caused by global warming accelerates further global warming. Frequent fires occurred in Alaska in 2004 and 2005, leading some to express concern the Arctic environment is changing and spurring a further rise in global temperatures.

Fukuda proposed establishing firefighting measures at an international conference several years ago.

The U.S. began research last year on an early fire detection system using satellites. Fukuda was named a member of a panel charged with discussing research plans.

Under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol aimed at preventing further global warming, a country that helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions in another country can get credit for its own levels.

This gives Japan an important incentive to help out in Siberia.

Fukuda has told government officials about the importance of an early warning system for Japan but has not heard a word back. Japan is committed to reducing its annual average greenhouse gas emissions by 6 percent from its 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012, but may find achieving the goal difficult.

Fukuda said several hundred million yen is enough to work out the system with Russia, and it would take billions of yen if Japan tried to reduce emissions at home to get the same effect.

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