Backcountry Cookfires: Overview and Techniques for Cooking Over an Open Flame
Mar 18, 2008 at 9:39 pm #1227891Ryan JordanAdmin
@ryanLocale: Central Rockies
Companion forum thread to:Mar 20, 2008 at 6:00 pm #1425043
"- That wood is there is because trees constantly die and shed branches- it is a renewable resource. Granted in high use areas it can be collected faster than it can replaced- dont build fires there."
The thing is that the wood on the ground is part of the ecosystem – it's not something left over that it's automatically OK to consume. In other words I don't think that it's a "resource" in the sense you seem to be using that word. Whether it rots and puts nutrients back into the ground, whether it forms a microhabitat for myriads of small and larger animals, or whether it stops erosion it's just better to not burn it – particularly when there are truly renewable lightweight options you can carry with you, which leads to your last point.
The point about strip-mining and drilling is interesting – but a recycled coca-cola can stove burning methylated spirits ("alcohol")[which, by the way, is not a non-renewable fossil fuel but a renewable fuel made from sugars (sorry, I guess everyone knows that it's 95% methanol but just in case..)] couldn't get a lot greener!
A couple of years ago I went camping at Wilsons Promotory, which is an absoloutely stunning peninsula in Australia. It has dozens of beaches and the sand on every one is different – so when you cross a headland the sand on the next beach will be different to the one you just left. Unfortunately it's very close to Melbourne, so there are about 4 million people within 2 hour's drive. I arrived at one of the sanctioned campsites, pitched my tent (4 kg … oops) and went for a walk. Right on the beach a young couple had dragged together a huge pile of fallen timber. No doubt they were dreaming of flickering flames, bonding, Prometheus etc. The problem with burning bonfires on beaches, particularly pristine white quartz ones, is that it turns them black. And even if people do think about it, they always rationalise it by saying to themselves, well it's just me so it's OK. So I picked up all of the wood and dumped it in the sea. It's pretty hard to burn salt-sodden timber. Did I feel any qualms about it? Yes. Were the romantic young couple annoyed? Probably, but frankly I've got no time for people who destroy what little unspoilt environment we have left. That's true anywhere, but even more so in Australia which is very old, unique and ecologically fragile.Mar 20, 2008 at 6:04 pm #1425045
A campfire in a reserve … this sort of thing happens all the time.Mar 21, 2008 at 6:51 am #1425068Brian ULMember
@maynard76Locale: New England
I think an alcohol stove is a very environmentally sound option and thats what I use most of the time.
But, my argument isnt that low impact fires are nessasaraliy the MOST enviromentaly sound just that they are environmentally sound.
Now, where on the grey scale of enviromentalism we should pin low impact fires is open to argument. I would personally put it high up there. It uses only local resources and there is no processing or transportation of parts and labor and no marketing literature. (except for the fire starting materials)
Personally I do see felled wood as a resource. Where it is plentifull there is enough for me and for the soil. We are talking about gathering a small amount not stripping the forest floor of all dead wood.
I agree that lots, even most people who build fires are probably doing it in an irresponsible manner. Most fires are built for atmosphere by people who arnt experienced and educated outdoorsman in places they shouldnt have one.
But lets not let that blind us to the possibilities that low impact fires can bring. Lets face it man and fire go together. Peolpe will always be drawn to it. Wouldnt it be great if we could have an article that shows how and when it could be done responsibly?Mar 21, 2008 at 7:50 am #1425078
"Lets face it man and fire go together. Peolpe will always be drawn to it. Wouldnt it be great if we could have an article that shows how and when it could be done responsibly?"
True … but it wasn't THIS article, fire-rings and cooking on flames etc.Mar 21, 2008 at 12:27 pm #1425112Brian JamesMember
@bjamesdLocale: South Coast of BC
I think that making a macro scale environmental argument is a little abstract. Nobody can argue that hiking is good for the climate, unless perhaps they went hiking in lieu of going to a 4×4 rally.
What's most relevant to me is the impact on the visual environment. Areas of the forest floor that have been stripped bare of dead wood are conspicuous and ugly. As are trees that have been relieved of all their dead limbs and some of their not-so-dead ones.
If you're off-trail, and below the treeline in an ecosystem that can regenerate quickly, fine. Leave your stove at home, be careful, and nobody will ever know.
But if you're on an established trail, as 95%+ of hikers are, do your part and bring a stove. Yes it will add *ouces* (!!!) to your base weight, but it will leave the environment natural for the next group to come through.
I'd love to build not only a fire every night, but a shelter as well. I'd also like to catch some of my own food. That would be awesome. A knife, a bow, some snares and a down blanket would be a pretty lightweight setup for wilderness travel.
I don't out of respect for the other users of the area.Mar 21, 2008 at 2:39 pm #1425127Sean MinerMember
@kromangunLocale: San Francisco Bay Area
Great article — I'm a huge fan of using rocks that have been heated by fire as a continued source of heat. In addition to using rocks for cooking, you can bury them below your sleeping area to heat you up. Just make sure to place a nice layer of soil over them. One word of caution, avoid collecting rocks near a water source. At high heats they can crack (and possibly) "explode" causing a nasty eye injury.
One drag about living in California is that too many people abused our ability to have ground fires by not being responsible. As a result, we're almost exclusively limited to gas/fuel tab stoves.
If you ever get a chance, though, go to the Point Reyes National Seashore (just north of San Francisco) and apply for their fire permit. Nothin' like a beach fire at the remote Wildcat camp!!!Mar 21, 2008 at 3:06 pm #1425130Elizabeth RothmanMember
@erothman2Locale: Pacific NW
I have to confess cringing, too, when I read about people having woodfires in the backcountry for any but emergency, survival reasons. And digging to bury rocks, cringe. Your teeny tiny impact must be considered multiplied by hundreds. That's the reality in most places people go. It's why I also cringe when I read, over and over, people in the UL world saying that because they are ultralight hikers they can feel okay about just sneaking off away from established or already-impacted camp spots to set up camp in that lovely grassy or otherwise pristine area. Guess what? The ten or twenty pounds less you're carrying doesn't mean you don't weigh anything or pee anything or otherwise have a typical human impact, and that worn-bare campsite used to be a lovely, pristine area too.
Re: fires: when I was working in the San Jacinto wilderness over fifteen years ago, I did a survey of firewood near established campsites, where fires were permitted (don't know if they still are, I hope not.) At most sites, I had to walk over 100 yards to find ANY wood on the ground that could be used to feed a fire. There are just too many of us out there, and the resource can renew and recover, yes, but not as fast as we can beat the crap out of it. Please read up on Leave No Trace practices, and don't think that because it's just little lightweight you it's OK to just step outside the 'rules' just a little bit. They're not rules set up by The Man; they are guidelines to moving ethically through the environment.
I'll share the plans for my lightweight soapbox if anybody's interested.
:-)Mar 21, 2008 at 5:36 pm #1425146joe wMember
nmMar 21, 2008 at 7:35 pm #1425161Roman DialMember
@romandialLocale: packrafting NZ
I'd rather have the number of people reduced in a wilderness, if it allowed us to make fires, than no fires and more people.
It's all coming down to aesthetics as far as I can tell from the comments in this forum. It's certainly not the environment.
Basically, our wilderness suffers from "over-hunting" of firewood. Just because we Americans shot all the Buffalo, ripped up all the prairie, fished out all the salmon, doesn't mean hunting, farming, or fishing are bad.
My impression is that it's easier to apply a blanket no-can-do than to manage resources efficiently and effectively.
I make a fire every chance I get. It's carbon neutral and at least I see the impact I have on the environment, unlike the hidden costs of petroleum based fuel.
BTW and for the record, I felt our Arctic 1000 trek was a success and not an "attempt". We walked 1000 km carrying what we needed.Mar 21, 2008 at 9:46 pm #1425168John McLaineMember
The impact of the fires pictured and described is completely inappropriate in wilderness areas. The disharmony in the trip described in the introduction would have been better handled by more appropriate selection of route or activity for the group and better group management, not by a destructive blaze. Please reduce or prevent the terrible impact of these fires by using a stove in wild areas.Mar 21, 2008 at 11:30 pm #1425177Greg MihalikSpectator
Deleted by Greg, the poster…
…to quick on the trigger.
I need more time to reflect.Mar 22, 2008 at 12:36 am #1425183
"It's all coming down to aesthetics as far as I can tell from the comments in this forum. It's certainly not the environment."
Actually it is the environment I'm concerned about – it's the use of fallen and live timber – for the reasons described above – it's the risk of escaped fires and it's the visual impact, which is also an environmental issue.
"I make a fire every chance I get. It's carbon neutral and at least I see the impact I have on the environment, unlike the hidden costs of petroleum based fuel."
Which is why I suggest using methylated spirits – but I'm not sure how burning wood is carbon neutral. If burning wood is carbon neutral then burning brown coal must be too …Mar 22, 2008 at 12:51 am #1425185Miguel ArboledaBPL Member
@butukiLocale: Kanto Plain, Japan
Whatever the impact on the environment, whether good or bad, it is good to know how to make a fire when you need it.
I'm lucky in that I learned when I was a boy and had some truly memorable times with the fires. I went through all the mistakes and all the accidents (once almost started a brush fire when I went to take a leak and left the fire unattended) and so had the opportunity to learn through experience, a few times with some true experts with bush lore, how to be responsible with fires. That was before the days of Leave No Trace or 6 billion people on the planet or in the woods. And it's sad that people today cannot have an honest and unquestioned relationship with making fires; of anything that we learned since we first started our long walk on the planet it is probably the most important and fundamental technological skill we ever learned, and directly responsible for our becoming what we are today.
Be that as it may, learning to make a fire is important; it can save your life! For those who have never done it, someone has to teach them. It's not something you can learn by trial and error in one night. The teacher should know what they are doing and the impact of what they are showing. And it might as well be here on this site, around a group of people who take being responsible and ethical very seriously.
Of course, learning from an article is not at all the same as being out there actually making the fire…Mar 22, 2008 at 6:33 am #1425195Adam RothermichBPL Member
@aroth87Locale: Missouri Ozarks
I make a small fire almost every time I go backpacking. I don't burn very much wood, just enough for a little heat and warmth. I don't feel bad making fires because I can usually find more than enough wood for my fire in the campsite. It probably has a lot to do with how I was raised as well.
I'll agree that making fires on glades or other delicate environments is very irresponsible. However, in Missouri at least, controlled burns are very common to promote a healthy eco-system. So I wouldn't jump to say fire in the wilderness is an evil thing.
And as for fires being equated to laziness, I think lighting up a canister stove is a lot more lazy than building a fire. I'm not saying one is better than the other, but one is much more work-intensive.
PS- *deleted* – Probably took it a little too far. I don't want to cause too much trouble.Mar 22, 2008 at 11:01 am #1425224
As with most, though not all, issues I think it's wrong to make blanket statements about building fires.
It seems that the consensus, with some opposition, is that minimal-impact stoves such as the Bushbuddy or a Kelly Kettle (aka Benghazi Boiler) are acceptable alternatives. I certainly think so. Since they burn twigs and leaf litter I think they are materially different than a campfire buring larger deadfall, especially since most of the people that use such systems are those of us who are far away from the busier trails.
Nonetheless, I have to support the burn bans in national parks, since there are simply too many irresponsible people infesting the national parks. BLM land and national forests are another matter, though. Few Joe Sixpacks like camping in real wilderness. My friends and I had campfies every night when we were kayaking through the Tongass this past summer. Not bonfires, mind you, but little camp fires.
One of those rare absolutisms:
Anyone who says that burning wood is no more carbon neutral than burning propane needs to do a little reading. The carbon in fossil fuels has been locked underground for at least 50 million years. It is unlikely that the Earth was cold enough to have ice at both poles at any time before 65 million years ago. Here's a source:
It is the difference between freeing carbon that is currently participating in the carbon cycle (wood) versus carbon that has been out of the cycle a long time (fossil fuels). Before that carbon was taken out of the cycle the Earth WAS exactly what all the global warning fanatics keep screaming about, or worse. So if you want another "Hothouse Earth", by all means, burn those fossil fuels and increase the atmospheric CO2 by 500%.
Alcohol is NOT carbon neutral. All the studies show almost no improvement over fossil fuels, because it takes so much fossil fuels to grow the source vegetation (fertilizer, tractor fuel, seed trucks, etc.), move it to the processing center, move the alcohol to the stores where you buy it, etc.
That said, eventually we may get to the point where it isn't a bad choice. We can learn a lot about how to do it from Brazil. Right now, speaking purely environmentally, alcohol is essentially just as bad as fossil fuels. But then again, what is one propane cannister compared to the gas you burned getting to the trail-head? A drop in the ocean, that's what. There is no truly good option. We have to accept that humans are going to affect the planet, and just try to minimize it. We can't stop it at this point; there are too many of us (and growing). Thank you, Malthus.Mar 22, 2008 at 3:49 pm #1425251
"Anyone who says that burning wood is no more carbon neutral than burning propane needs to do a little reading."
So I did a little reading:
To quote from the very first article I googled: "There are numerous sites incorrectly making the unqualified statement that burning wood is carbon neutral."
And if burning wood is carbon neutral, does that mean it's OK to burn the Amazon? Or the forests in South-East Asia?
"Alcohol is NOT carbon neutral. All the studies show almost no improvement over fossil fuels, because it takes so much fossil fuels to grow the source vegetation (fertilizer, tractor fuel, seed trucks, etc.), move it to the processing center, move the alcohol to the stores where you buy it, etc."
I'd need to see more info on that – a lot of the arguments advanced in Australia against methanol use as car fuel is based on the sitution in the US where you're converting corn to methanol which is (apparently) very expensive and resource-intensive – but Australia, like Brazil, has large areas of sugar-cane, and you can pretty much brew sugar into methanol in your back-yard. Traditionally the sugar cane mills here were small, located very close to the cane-fields and used small, local trainlines to shift the sugar cane to the mills, so the same "food miles" also argument doesn't hold. And Queensland's a lot closer to Melbourne than Saudi Arabia.
"Thank you, Malthus."
Yes, well I'm old enought to remember the Club of Rome – according to them we were all supposed to be eating each other, like in Soylent Green, some 25 years ago. According to Malthus we were supposed to be eating each other around 1913.
In any case, in the spirit of of lighting a small candle etc, etc we are about to convert our house to solar passive/solar cells/solar hot water/sun lizard/grid interactive/all rainwater use/recycled greywater and possibly storm water re-use through ground infiltration tanks – and all of the architects and green consultants we've been speaking to are rushed off their feet … well, in my part of town anyway. I ride, walk or tram it to work and we have one car. Our new car (growing family) will be LPG, diesel or hybrid. Hybrid LPG would be ideal, but isn't available at the moment.Mar 23, 2008 at 7:24 am #1425281
Yes the first article up when you google "wood carbon neutral" is the one you cited. The next FOUR, however, all expound upon the carbon-neutrality of burning wood. Your google-based argument, then, is rendered void.
This is all moot, however. I said "more carbon neutral," exactly as you quoted me. "More." Honestly I don't know if burning wood is totally carbon neutral, but I am sure that it is MORE carbon neutral than burning fossil fuels.
Did you even read the article I linked?
For that matter, did you even read the article YOU linked? It nearly verbatim states that burning wood IS carbon neutral in theory, but isn't in practice when we burn wood faster than trees grow back. So no, burning the Amazon is not ok. I'm sorry I had to be the one answer your condescending rhetorical question. And just to keep you from asking I will state now: No, I do not advocate the whole-scale burning of our forests to heat our cities. Any more extreme examples you'd like to make?
(Some text voluntarily edited out, for being a little rude.)
Sorry, Sir, but I make no apologies for my tiny campfires during my trip in the middle of the Alaskan nowhere. I have no issues with making campfires the way they are done in the vast majority of public campsites- i.e. there is a firepit or ring, but you haul the firewood in. Do I burn wood as my default hikinkg power source? No, of course not, that would be silly. Almost as silly as dismissing the option unilaterally and out of hand.
I do apologize for a generalization I made regarding the carbon neutrality of alcohol. I was, in fact, talking about North America and Europe. As the greatest consumers of fossil fuels and any possible alternatives to fossil fuels I had limited my discussion to those markets, but failed to specify that. Mea culpa. In my defense I DID acknowledge this by mentioning that Brazil does it much better than, say, the US does. If it makes you feel better to quote that Australia does it better too, then go ahead. But it STILL isn't NEARLY carbon neutral. How does Australia fertilize those fields? What's nice about cane is that you can burn the cane to help power the boilers when turning it into ethanol, but even Brazil still has to augment with some fossil fuels.
I maintain that at the end-user scale burning a few twigs remains more carbon-neutral than burning alcohol, unless you are an organic farmer running on all alternative power sources and fermenting your own white lightning.
Kudos to you, since you seem to be well on the way to that standard, judging from the domestic setup that you described.
For the record, my favored stove is alcohol fueled.
Also for the record, corn and cane get fermented into ethanol, not methanol. The waste that's left over can be made into methanol, but it is usually burned to fire the boilers.Mar 23, 2008 at 7:41 am #1425283t.darrahBPL Member
@thomdarrahLocale: Southern Oregon
I have gone to a cook-less diet while on the trail and carry no stove or fuel of any kind and build no fires (the only time I carry and use a stove is during winter trips where a stove is required to melt snow for drinking water). But even going cook-less I can't claim to be carbon neutral. The food I eat is harvested and processed somewhere using some form of energy. I have no moral issue with choosing to build a small fire for cooking, for warmth or for the simple pleasure of sitting near. The adage of leave no trace, whatever ones selected method of cooking, is what we all should strive to follow.Mar 23, 2008 at 8:23 am #1425286
But that's sort of what we're discussing here: what is "leave no trace"?
Is it better to use that propane-fired stove that contributes to global warming, or is it the lesser of two evils to burn a few twigs and pine cones in something like the Bushbuddy?
I think the propane's contribution is trivial, and equivalent to the carbon footprint that you would leave by not going out hiking and eat at home instead. Thus I think all this talk about which is carbon-neutral and which isn't is pointless, frankly.
But, I also think that some LNT zealots go too far, as well. And they are a little hypocritical, too, because they are contributing to soil erosion, scaring the critters, etc., etc. The only true LNT policy is to stay home, isn't it? And none of us are willing to do that.
As I said, I have searched my heart and decided not to burn wood in anything approaching a high-use area. But the remote back-country isn't going to miss a few pine cones, and I dare anyone to try and identify one of my campsites three days after I've been there. Even then, I'm probably using alcohol. I reserve wood for truly remote places where my impact is trivial, like the Tongass.
Oh, and someone asked me for a reference about the carbon neutrality of ethanol. Here is a quote from a Wikipeia article, which I will admit is not the best of sources, covering several general environmental problems with ethanol:
"It takes 1.2 gallons of fossil fuel to produce 1 gallon of ethanol from corn. This total includes the use of fossil fuels used for fertilizer, tractor fuel, ethanol plant operation, etc. Research has shown that 1 gallon of fossil fuel can produce over 5 gallons of ethanol from prairie grasses, according to Terry Riley, President of Policy at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. The United States Department of Energy concludes that corn-based ethanol provides 26 percent more energy than it requires for production, while cellulosic ethanol provides 80 percent more energy. Cellulosic ethanol yields 80 percent more energy than is required to grow and convert it. The process of turning corn into ethanol requires about 1,700 gallons of water for every 1 gallon of ethanol produced. Additionally, each gallon of ethanol leaves behind 12 gallons of waste that must be disposed. Grain ethanol uses only the edible portion of the plant. Expansion of corn acres for the production of ethanol poses threats to biodiversity. Corn lacks a strong root system, therefore, when produced, it causes soil erosion. This has a direct effect on soil particles, along with excess fertilizers and other chemicals, washing into local waterways, damaging water quality and harming aquatic life. Planting riparian areas can serve as a buffer to waterways, and decrease runoff."
And, yes, sugar cane does a little better, and cellulosic sources like sawgrass or switchgrass do better still. But they aren't NEUTRAL.
Also, this from an environmental website:
They reserve their harshest criticism for corn-based ethanol, calling it "fool's gold" if I recall correctly.
If you want hard data, here is a paper from the Wilson Institute:
They discuss the carbon balance of US Corn and Brazilian cane ethanol in excruciating detail.
So you can expound all you like about the POTENTIAL carbon-neutrality of alcohol, but RIGHT NOW it isn't, not by a long shot, and won't be in my lifetime.
Look, I don't claim to be the expert, but this is the information that I've read. If you do, in fact, have better data please show it to me.Mar 23, 2008 at 11:41 pm #1425357Roman DialMember
@romandialLocale: packrafting NZ
Overall, the LNT principle strikes me as a cultural principle, an ethical extension of the don't litter idea, which emerged in the US during the 1960's. Some of us remember the ol' B&W TV ad of the crying Indian, the pig hanging out of the car window, etc.
The real struggle for me is this: how do we get more people to value wilderness and wildlands without bringing them there? It seems we need to bring them there (kids, impressionable adults) to encounter it and make contact, like Thoreau did if only in the local woods, or like Muir did in the West and Alaska.
So even if you get them (kids, impressionable adults) out there, how do you get them to come back? Cold camps and cold food will not seem very appealing. To be honest, I struggle with second/vacation home owners, ORV and ATV and motor boat drivers, downhill skiers, game hunters (i.e trophy) and fishers, sport climbers and day hikers who drive to their spots — Ok now I quit, because the next level of consumerism will include what I like to do!
What I struggle with is: are we being dollar-stupid and penny-wise when we antagonize and ostracize user groups who don't do things our way?
I mean, because even more of the non-developed world is consumed every day, instead of fighting other lovers of the outdoors for the scraps that are left ("No motors! NO fires! No guns! NO bikes! No horses! No feet! This wilderness is mine to imagine empty!"), just because they enjoy it differently, shouldn't we work with them to slow the pace of development?
I used to be into mtn biking in a big way and was riding with some Marin County hard-cores when I said why not work to get the trails they loved to ride made into legal rides, and they said, no, then the trails would be too crowded and they wanted them for themselves. So, some are willing to be outlaws so they can have their cake ("yes, I like the no fire rule so there's always firewood for me").
I was Google-Earthing the Everglades, 'cause I was thinking of doing a packraft-style trek across it, and I saw all kinds of ORV trails as well as encroachment on the glades from the east and north by housing developments.
I tried to find out what was going on with the ORV trails when I read that BOTH the hunters/ORV/jet boat crowd and the imagine-the-wilderness-full-of-critters-but-don't-visit-it-crowd wanted the glades without draining and new housing developments but rather than unite to stop draining & development they fought over the scraps that were left: the environmentalists wanted a wild/untouched glades and the ORVers wanted access to keep visiting and they bad mouthed and alienated each other.
This happens again and again…..when we run out of a resource, competitors don't unite to find more resources, but rather fight to the bitter end of what's left, to take the last scrap.
Rather than alienate, don't we need to work together?…..(this is starting to sound like an Obama speech)….. in the context of this discussion, I'd like to see more areas opened up to bush buddy stoves, areas that currently allow only "stoves".Mar 24, 2008 at 6:10 am #1425374
"Yes the first article up when you google "wood carbon neutral" is the one you cited. The next FOUR, however, all expound upon the carbon-neutrality of burning wood. Your google-based argument, then, is rendered void."
It was the content of the article I was interested in, not so much the fact that it came up first. The article – which I did read – debunks the unqualified argument that burning wood is carbon neutral. And it specifically refers to a couple of the articles that come up in the google search. And I couldn't help but notice that one of those articles was by a company that sells wood power generation technology.
I also appreciate that you said "more" carbon neutral but I was responding to Roman's comment that fires are carbon neutral:
"I make a fire every chance I get. It's carbon neutral and at least I see the impact I have on the environment, unlike the hidden costs of petroleum based fuel."
I actually think that there's a flaw in the article I referenced – they seem to presume that a growing tree takes up CO2 as quickly as it's released by burning another tree, as if it's a one-for-one swap, hence the references to forest sustainability are references to planting as many trees as you cut down. But if a tree takes 20 years to sequester X grams of CO2, it will presumably take another tree 20 years to sequester the same amount of CO2 released in one hit by burning the first tree. So if you want to avoid a spike in CO2 now you need 20 new trees growing to reduce the CO2 released by burning that one tree.Mar 24, 2008 at 7:18 pm #1425456Cornelius AustinMember
I love the open fire aspect and I will continue to to use my bushbuddy. It's the best thing since sliced bread. I would go as far as to say one could use it on grass without leaving a mark. I'm not sure if it would be good for the live plants as the bottom is only warm to the touch. When I use it on sand, rocks etc. I certainly can't tell afterwards. The amount of fuel that it uses is miniscule vs an open fire in a fire pit or in a liquid fire stove.Mar 25, 2008 at 12:37 am #1425473
Woops. Sorry about confusing your comment to Roman. I got a little touchy there…
"I actually think that there's a flaw in the article I referenced – they seem to presume that a growing tree takes up CO2 as quickly as it's released by burning another tree … But if a tree takes 20 years to sequester X grams of CO2, it will presumably take another tree 20 years to sequester the same amount of CO2 released in one hit by burning the first tree."
Yes, that's exactly how I read it, too. That's what I meant by 'in theory' versus 'in practice' though I didn't go into the detail that you did. I don't, however, think that the author overlooked the growing time of trees. He mentions exactly the same thing you just said, and it is sort of the entire basis for his argument against wood as a 'carbon-neutral' alternative fuel source. He wrote:
"But what happens when trees are cut and burned faster than they are replenished? If a forest is being harvested for fuel at a rate of 1000 trees (or cords, or tons, or acres, pick your unit) per year, but less than 1000 units per year are regnerated via regrowth, then carbon is being dumped into the atmosphere faster (by burning) than is being removed (by tree growth)."
I would agree, certainly human society should not change to wood en-mass, since we'd strip the planet bare in about thirty seconds.
Though I agree with the article you cited (I had better, since it actually supports MY position) a big point against its validity is this: it isn't a scientific paper, any more than the other four articles that I googled are. It is a post on a forum, just like this thing that I am typing now. Who is this guy? What are his credentials? (He may have good ones, but I can't find them.) I agree with what he is saying but I'm just a layman, too, albeit a highly educated one. This is a basic problem with the internet as an information source: any idiot can post whatever he wants (me included) and it is difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. You have to actually read it all with a critical eye. This is what I meant by saying that google-based arguments are void, because by that standard wood fuel is the solution to all our problems, since 4 out of 5 google articles say so.
The Wilson Center paper on ethanol use that I cited, on the other hand, is a rigorous scientific paper published in a peer-reviewed journal. I haven't found a similar paper about wood fuels, but I'll keep my eye out.
Anyway, the exact same argument that your article makes against wood can be made against alcohol, since you have to wait for the plants that the alcohol is made from to grow back, too. Of course plants like corn, sugar cane, and switchgrass all grow back in one season or less. But the fossil fuels currently used to produce, process, and ship alcohol still makes it more of a losing proposition (carbon-wise) than wood used on a SMALL scale. (In all honesty, the twigs and pine cones that I burn in my Kelly Kettle grow back in one season, too, and no-one burned fossil fuels to produce them.)
Consider, again, the post you cited:
"An interesting sidebar to this question is that the cycle time plays a key role in the analysis. If the fuel to be harvested matures quickly (hay or bamboo are good examples), then the cycle time can be measured in a few months or a couple of years, rather than in decades. The fuel can be harvested and burned faster, but the fuel’s energy density, in terms of BTUs per acre of harvest, is much lower. It seems likely that there is some optimal combination of energy density, carbon density and cycle time among the available renewable fuels."
Indeed some of the responses on that forum disagree with the author (though I think all the arguments against him were puerile). The author also, in a response on the forum, admits that a well-managed woodlot used as a source of wood fuel WOULD be carbon-neutral.
Certainly more carbon-neutral than burning oil and releasing the CO2 that used to make the entire Earth a boiling hothouse before the Azolla event. (See my reference a few posts ago. It's actually very interesting.)
But I will admit that my net take is this: I think the difference between alcohol and wood on the small scale that we campers use is trivial, and in fact the difference between alcohol and gas is trivial, too, on that small scale. One isopropane canister is a drop in the bucket compared to all the other carbon an individual generates. So, ignoring the weight savings, we should all have no real problem with using gas stoves.
(Some stuff edited out because this is too long already.)
By the way, I honestly thought that Brazil was the only country with a truly dedicated ethanol infrastructure, yet you described distillation points very close to the cane fields in Australia. Are you sure those aren't just the boilers for reducing the cane to syrup? Or did Australia build these facilities recently? Or are they just very small-scale? Or am I just ignorant? (Which wouldn't be surprising, since I am an American…)Mar 25, 2008 at 1:56 am #1425476
Actually, if we're being truly rigorous about our carbon-neutrality we should all be using wind/solar/geothermal power to crack water into hydrogen and oxygen, and burn THAT. Thus, we should all strive to use stoves powered by rocket fuel! Anything less isn't green! :)
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