On Richard Feynman, wildfires and ‘recycled sunlight’

Richard Feynman was an inspiring science communicator. In one of his television broadcasts [embedded below], he talks about a log burning on an open fire and provides one of the most eloquent explanations of the physical chemistry of wood combustion [full video and transcript below].

Feynman explains that throughout its life, a tree accumulates a great amount of potential energy in the form of carbon stripped by photosynthesis from its preferred molecular partner oxygen thanks to energy from the sun – that at a tree grows from the air, and not from the ground. It is only once it is provided with a source of ignition that carbon atoms in the tree and oxygen atoms in the air gain enough energy to reunite, a process that releases a great amount of energy, sustaining high temperatures and producing a chain reaction that is a fire. As Feynman put it, “the light and heat that’s coming out, that’s the light and heat of the sun that went in. So it’s stored sun that’s coming out when you burn a log!”

An interpretation of Feynman’s discussion is that combustion re-balances the imbalance caused by photosynthesis. The carbon that was taken from the atmosphere, and the energy that was taken from the sun by the tree, is quickly released back to the atmosphere during a fire – a closed cycle, where the regrowth of a new tree begins the process once again. If we extend this interpretation to the burning of ancient and fossilised carbon stores, such as peat, coal, oil, and gas; we can appreciate that the energy released comes from sunlight that once shone down on our planet many thousands or millions of years ago.

In a separate post on ‘Why wildfires fuel climate change’, I discuss how this natural component of the carbon cycle has been tipped far from equilibrium by human activity.

Continue reading “On Richard Feynman, wildfires and ‘recycled sunlight’”

Deforestation and drainage for oil palm in North Selangor, Malaysia [360 4K video]

This video shows a brief walk through of one of our Trocari field sites near Sungai Besar, North Selangor, Malaysia. This site was once part of the Raja Musa Forest Reserve, but was illegally deforested ~15 years ago. Since then, the site has been drained and burned a number of times for land clearance and conversion to an oil palm plantation around 3 years ago (2015).

The video shows evidence of the burning, loss of ~1 m of peat soil profile, drainage, and the young oil palm trees. The converted side of the drainage canal is quite dramatically at a lower elevation than the forested side, with considerable loss of elevation due to peat fires, decomposition, and compaction.

It also ends showing the rather precarious bridge onto the site. Quite tricky to negotiate when you’re carrying heavy and expensive scientific equipment.

How to access the New Straits Times archives

The main reception desk of the New Straits Times Resource Centre

This is a short post about accessing the archives of the New Straits Times in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Posting here because there is very little information about this important media archive online.

For a start, don’t expect anyone to know what you are looking for when you ask for the “archives”. Officially the name of the archives is the ‘Resource Centre’, but may also be referred to as ‘the library’ by staff.

The NSTP Resource Centre is located at the main New Straits Time Office:

Upon arriving at the main gate, tell the guard that you are visiting the Resource Centre. They should point you in the direction of the archives.

The Resource Centre offers the following services:

  • News clippings: Collection of ~6 million newspaper clippings in English and Bahasa Melayu.
  • Photographs: ~6.7 million hard copy prints dating back to the 1850s.
  • Bound volumes: Original copies bound monthly back to 1970.
  • Microform: Copies of newspaper articles from 1950s to 1984.
  • News and image bank: Access to their online archive of newspaper articles, online and PDF scans dating back to 1991.
  • Cartoons: Original drawings, including by artists Lat, Fauzi, Juragan, and Ragam Zoy.
  • Various books, magazines, maps, etc..

NST includes a number of national and regional newspapers, in both the English language and Bahasa Melayu:

  • New Straits Times
  • Berita Harian
  • The Star
  • Harian Metro
  • Galeri Prima

If you are only interested in recent articles and wish to save travelling to Kuala Lumpur, it is possible to access (for a small fee) the News and Image Bank online. This includes a searchable database of articles and images dating back to 1991. Continue reading “How to access the New Straits Times archives”

Fighting Fire with Fire [Photo Essay]

This photo essay documents a trip made by UK firefighters, land managers, and researchers, to participate in a “Technical Fire Management” training course in Catalonia led by the GRAF bombers (‘bombers’ being Catalan for fire fighter), Catalonia’s highly skilled forest fire fighters.

The trip formed part of my work whilst leading a Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) funded Knowledge Exchange project that links wildfire academics with various Fire and Rescue Services in the UK. The main aim of the project was to incorporate cutting-edge wildfire research (for example, wildfire spread simulation models, unmanned aerial reconnaisance systems etc.) into the wildfire training programmes offered by UK Fire and Rescue Services.

Perhaps surprisingly, the UK Fire and Rescue Services respond to more than 60,000 wildfires annually, which is around one-third of all fire ‘call-outs’. Despite this, specialised training is only offered by a handful of Services. Opportunities for UK fire personnel to participate in ‘live’ training fires are rare due to the unpredictable British weather and strict restrictions on when land burning can take place. One solution in recent years has been to send UK fire fighters to undertake training abroad in places like Catalonia and Kruger National Park in South Africa.

In February, around 20 officers from six UK Fire and Rescue Services, two Danish fire fighters, a land manager and myself (a researcher) flew to Barcelona where we were picked up and driven to the GRAF bomber academy in the suburbs. And so began a tough week of learning, hard labour, and fire, of course.

A full photo gallery containing 75 photos from this campaign can be found here.

1. Arrival

Before the first classroom exercises of the day, the training course participants walk across the parade for a ceremonial photo under the national flags of the participant countries. Possibly ironic that the Catalans had mistaken Northern Ireland for the Republic of Ireland!

Continue reading “Fighting Fire with Fire [Photo Essay]”

Why wildfires fuel climate change

The rainforest is being cleared and burned in Borneo. A majestic Meranti tree is close to the edge of the forest. As flames from the nearby fires rage closer to this ancient tree, water quickly evaporates from its leaves, transforming the foliage into dry fuel for the fire. When turbulent, convective winds within the canopy bring hot air to the immediate surroundings of our tree, long-chain cellulose molecules in the desiccated foliage begin to crack, producing hydrocarbon gases and solid char deposits; with a flash, the gases ignite, forming the flames of the fire.

This brief, catastrophic episode at the end of this tree’s life quickly rebalances a century of organic chemistry. Throughout its life, the tree had accumulated a great amount of potential energy in the form of carbon stripped from its preferred partner oxygen thanks to energy from the sun through photosynthesis. Once provided with a source of ignition, carbon atoms in the tree and oxygen atoms in the air gain enough energy to reunite, releasing a great amount of energy, sustaining high temperatures and producing a chain reaction that is a fire. As the great physicist Richard Feynman once put it, “the light and heat that’s coming out [of a log fire], that’s the light and heat of the sun that went in. So it’s stored sun that’s coming out when you burn a log!”

“the light and heat that’s coming out [of a log fire], that’s the light and heat of the sun that went in” Photo taken by Thomas Smith at an oil palm plantation slash and burn fire near Sungai Besar, Selangor, Malaysia.
According to Feynman, one could explain that a forest fire is ‘recycled sunlight’, a natural component of the carbon exchange between the biosphere and atmosphere. After all, fire is endemic to many of our planet’s natural environments, essential for regeneration, fertilisation and germination of many plant species. But does all of this burning have any influence on our climate? Continue reading “Why wildfires fuel climate change”