Articles | Volume 11, issue 4
Biogeosciences, 11, 1085–1102, 2014
Biogeosciences, 11, 1085–1102, 2014

Research article 26 Feb 2014

Research article | 26 Feb 2014

Impact of human population density on fire frequency at the global scale

W. Knorr1, T. Kaminski2, A. Arneth3, and U. Weber4 W. Knorr et al.
  • 1Physical Geography and Ecosystem Analysis, Lund University, Sölvegatan 12, 22362 Lund, Sweden
  • 2FastOpt GmbH, Lerchenstr. 28a, 22767 Hamburg, Germany
  • 3KIT/IMK-IFU, Kreuzeckbahnstr. 19, 82467 Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany
  • 4Max-Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, Hans-Knoell-Str. 10, 07745 Jena, Germany

Abstract. Human impact on wildfires, a major earth system component, remains poorly understood. While local studies have found more fires close to settlements and roads, assimilated charcoal records and analyses of regional fire patterns from remote-sensing observations point to a decline in fire frequency with increasing human population. Here, we present a global analysis using three multi-year satellite-based burned-area products combined with a parameter estimation and uncertainty analysis with a non-linear model. We show that at the global scale, the impact of increasing population density is mainly to reduce fire frequency. Only for areas with up to 0.1 people per km2, we find that fire frequency increases by 10 to 20% relative to its value at no population. The results are robust against choice of burned-area data set, and indicate that at only very few places on earth, fire frequency is limited by human ignitions. Applying the results to historical population estimates results in a moderate but accelerating decline of global burned area by around 14% since 1800, with most of the decline since 1950.

Final-revised paper