Fire in the Earth System: Bridging data and modeling research

Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society
By: , and 



Significant changes in wildfire occurrence, extent, and severity in areas such as western North America and Indonesia in 2015 have made the issue of fire increasingly salient in both the public and scientific spheres. Biomass combustion rapidly transforms land cover, smoke pours into the atmosphere, radiative heat from fires initiates dramatic pyrocumulus clouds, and the repeated ecological and atmospheric effects of fire can even impact regional and global climate. Furthermore, fires have a significant impact on human health, livelihoods, and social and economic systems.

Modeling and databased methods to understand fire have rapidly coevolved over the past decade. Satellite and ground-based data about present-day fire are widely available for applications in research and fire management. Fire modeling has developed in part because of the evolution in vegetation and Earth system modeling efforts, but parameterizations and validation are largely focused on the present day because of the availability of satellite data. Charcoal deposits in sediment cores have emerged as a powerful method to evaluate trends in biomass burning extending back to the Last Glacial Maximum and beyond, and these records provide a context for present-day fire. The Global Charcoal Database version 3 compiled about 700 charcoal records and more than 1,000 records are expected for the future version 4. Together, these advances offer a pathway to explore how the strengths of fire data and fire modeling could address the weaknesses in the overall understanding of human-climate–fire linkages.

A community of researchers studying fire in the Earth system with individual expertise that included paleoecology, paleoclimatology, modern ecology, archaeology, climate, and Earth system modeling, statistics, geography, biogeochemistry, and atmospheric science met at an intensive workshop in Massachusetts to explore new research directions and initiate new collaborations. Research themes, which emerged from the workshop participants via preworkshop surveys, focused on addressing the following questions: What are the climatic, ecological, and human drivers of fire regimes, both past and future? What is the role of humans in shaping historical fire regimes? How does fire ecology affect land cover changes, biodiversity, carbon storage, and human land uses? What are the historical fire trends and their impacts across biomes? Are their impacts local and/or regional? Are the fire trends in the last two decades unprecedented from a historical perspective? The workshop1 aimed to develop testable hypotheses about fire, climate, vegetation, and human interactions by leveraging the confluence of proxy, observational, and model data related to decadal- to millennial-scale fire activity on our planet. New research directions focused on broad interdisciplinary approaches to highlight how knowledge about past fire activity could provide a more complete understanding of the predictive capacity of fire models and inform fire policy in the face of our changing climate.

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Fire in the Earth System: Bridging data and modeling research
Series title Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society
DOI 10.1175/BAMS-D-15-00319.1
Volume 97
Issue 6
Year Published 2016
Language English
Publisher American Meteorological Society
Contributing office(s) Geosciences and Environmental Change Science Center
Description 4 p.
Larger Work Title Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS)
First page 1069
Last page 1072
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