Temporal variability of forest fires in eastern Amazonia

Ane Alencar, Gregory P Asner, David Knapp, Daniel Zarin
Ecological Applications 2011, 21 (7): 2397-412
Widespread occurrence of fires in Amazonian forests is known to be associated with extreme droughts, but historical data on the location and extent of forest fires are fundamental to determining the degree to which climate conditions and droughts have affected fire occurrence in the region. We used remote sensing to derive a 23-year time series of annual landscape-level burn scars in a fragmented forest of the eastern Amazon. Our burn scar data set is based on a new routine developed for the Carnegie Landsat Analysis System (CLAS), called CLAS-BURN, to calculate a physically based burn scar index (BSI) with an overall accuracy of 93% (Kappa coefficient 0.84). This index uses sub-pixel cover fractions of photosynthetic vegetation, non-photosynthetic vegetation, and shade/burn scar spectral end members. From 23 consecutive Landsat images processed with the CLAS-BURN algorithm, we quantified fire frequencies, the variation in fire return intervals, and rates of conversion of burned forest to other land uses in a 32 400 km2 area. From 1983 to 2007, 15% of the forest burned; 38% of these burned forests were subsequently deforested, representing 19% of the area cleared during the period of observation. While 72% of the fire-affected forest burned only once during the 23-year study period, 20% burned twice, 6% burned three times, and 2% burned four or more times, with the maximum of seven times. These frequencies suggest that the current fire return interval is 5-11 times more frequent than the estimated natural fire regime. Our results also quantify the substantial influence of climate and extreme droughts caused by a strong El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) on the extent and likelihood of returning forest fires mainly in fragmented landscapes. These results are an important indication of the role of future warmer climate and deforestation in enhancing emissions from more frequently burned forests in the Amazon.


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