Articles | Volume 14, issue 18
Research article
15 Sep 2017
Research article |  | 15 Sep 2017

Precipitation–fire linkages in Indonesia (1997–2015)

Thierry Fanin and Guido R. van der Werf

Abstract. Over the past decades, fires have burned annually in Indonesia, yet the strength of the fire season is for a large part modulated by the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). The two most recent very strong El Niño years were 2015 and 1997. Both years involved high incidences of fire in Indonesia. At present, there is no consistent satellite data stream spanning the full 19-year record, thereby complicating a comparison between these two fire seasons. We have investigated how various fire and precipitation datasets can be merged to better compare the fire dynamics in 1997 and 2015 as well as in intermediary years. We combined nighttime active fire detections from the Along Track Scanning Radiometer (ATSR) World Fire Atlas (WFA) available from 1997 until 2012 and the nighttime subset of the Moderate-Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) sensor from 2001 until now. For the overlapping period, MODIS detected about 4 times more fires than ATSR, but this ratio varied spatially. Although the reasons behind this spatial variability remain unclear, the coefficient of determination for the overlapping period was high (R2 = 0. 97, based on monthly data) and allowed for a consistent time series. We then constructed a rainfall time series based on the Global Precipitation Climatology Project (GPCP, 1997–2015) and the Tropical Rainfall Measurement Mission Project (TRMM, 1998–2015). Relations between antecedent rainfall and fire activity were not uniform in Indonesia. In southern Sumatra and Kalimantan, we found that 120 days of rainfall accumulation had the highest coefficient of determination with annual fire intensity. In northern Sumatra, this period was only 30 days. Thresholds of 200 and 305 mm average rainfall accumulation before each active fire were identified to generate a high-incidence fire year in southern Sumatra and southern Kalimantan, respectively. The number of active fires detected in 1997 was 2.2 times higher than in 2015. Assuming the ratio between nighttime and total active fires did not change, the 1997 season was thus about twice as severe as the one in 2015. Although large, the difference is smaller than found in fire emission estimates from the Global Fire Emissions Database (GFED). Besides different rainfall amounts and patterns, the two-fold difference between 1997 and 2015 may be attributed to a weaker El Niño and neutral Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) conditions in the later year. The fraction of fires burning in peatlands was higher in 2015 compared to 1997 (61 and 45 %, respectively). Finally, we found that the non-linearity between rainfall and fire in Indonesia stems from longer periods without rain in extremely dry years.

Short summary
Using night fire detection and rainfall datasets during 1997–2015, we found that the number of night fires detected in 1997 was 2.2 times higher than in 2015, but with a higher fraction of peatland burned in 2015. We also confirmed the non-linearity of rainfall accumulation prior to a fire to indicate a high fire year. The influence of rainfall on the number of yearly fires varies across Indonesia. Southern Sumatra and Kalimantan need 120 days of observations, while northern Sumatra only 30.
Final-revised paper