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Fires burn over a third more land than estimated

Bush fire in Madagascar. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Bush fire in Madagascar. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Scientists currently detect fires around the world using moderate resolution satellite imagery, however a new study in the Journal of Geophysical Research finds that this tool misses many of the world’s smaller fires, which add up.

“Accounting for small fires increased total burned area by approximately by 35 percent, from 345 million hectares/year to 464 million hectares/year,” the scientists write. They employed satellite thermal imaging to catch fires and burn scars that normal satellite images miss.

The researchers found that while small fires did not overwhelm fire estimates in boreal forests or the savannas of Africa and Australia, they markedly added to estimates in tropical forest regions. Just be incorporating small fires, fire estimates estimates jumped 90 percent in Southeast Asia, 143 percent in Central America, and 157 percent in Equatorial Asia. In the U.S., the land area burned by fire jumped 75 percent when small conflagrations were incorporated.

More fires also means more greenhouse gas emitted into the atmosphere and other pollutants. For example, the scientists found that the small fires raised current carbon estimates related to fires by 35 percent, adding 0.6 petagrams of carbon annually.

CITATION: Randerson, J.T., Y. Chen, G.R. van der Werf, B.M. Rogers, and D.C. Morton. How important are small fires for global burned area and biomass burning emissions? Journal of Geophysical Research. 2012.

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