Articles | Volume 13, issue 12
Research article
28 Jun 2016
Research article |  | 28 Jun 2016

Biomass burning fuel consumption dynamics in the tropics and subtropics assessed from satellite

Niels Andela, Guido R. van der Werf, Johannes W. Kaiser, Thijs T. van Leeuwen, Martin J. Wooster, and Caroline E. R. Lehmann

Abstract. Landscape fires occur on a large scale in (sub)tropical savannas and grasslands, affecting ecosystem dynamics, regional air quality and concentrations of atmospheric trace gasses. Fuel consumption per unit of area burned is an important but poorly constrained parameter in fire emission modelling. We combined satellite-derived burned area with fire radiative power (FRP) data to derive fuel consumption estimates for land cover types with low tree cover in South America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Australia. We developed a new approach to estimate fuel consumption, based on FRP data from the polar-orbiting Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) and the geostationary Spinning Enhanced Visible and Infrared Imager (SEVIRI) in combination with MODIS burned-area estimates. The fuel consumption estimates based on the geostationary and polar-orbiting instruments showed good agreement in terms of spatial patterns. We used field measurements of fuel consumption to constrain our results, but the large variation in fuel consumption in both space and time complicated this comparison and absolute fuel consumption estimates remained more uncertain. Spatial patterns in fuel consumption could be partly explained by vegetation productivity and fire return periods. In South America, most fires occurred in savannas with relatively long fire return periods, resulting in comparatively high fuel consumption as opposed to the more frequently burning savannas in Sub-Saharan Africa. Strikingly, we found the infrequently burning interior of Australia to have higher fuel consumption than the more productive but frequently burning savannas in northern Australia. Vegetation type also played an important role in explaining the distribution of fuel consumption, by affecting both fuel build-up rates and fire return periods. Hummock grasslands, which were responsible for a large share of Australian biomass burning, showed larger fuel build-up rates than equally productive grasslands in Africa, although this effect might have been partially driven by the presence of grazers in Africa or differences in landscape management. Finally, land management in the form of deforestation and agriculture also considerably affected fuel consumption regionally. We conclude that combining FRP and burned-area estimates, calibrated against field measurements, is a promising approach in deriving quantitative estimates of fuel consumption. Satellite-derived fuel consumption estimates may both challenge our current understanding of spatiotemporal fuel consumption dynamics and serve as reference datasets to improve biogeochemical modelling approaches. Future field studies especially designed to validate satellite-based products, or airborne remote sensing, may further improve confidence in the absolute fuel consumption estimates which are quickly becoming the weakest link in fire emission estimates.

Short summary
Landscape fires occur on a large scale in savannas and grasslands, affecting ecosystems and air quality. We combined two satellite-derived datasets to derive fuel consumption per unit of area burned for savannas and grasslands in the (sub)tropics. Fire return periods, vegetation productivity, vegetation type and human land management were all important drivers of its spatial distribution. The results can be used to improve fire emission modelling and management or to detect ecosystem degradation.
Final-revised paper