Understorey fire frequency and the fate of burned forests in southern Amazonia.

Research paper by D C DC Morton, Y Y Le Page, R R DeFries, G J GJ Collatz, G C GC Hurtt

Indexed on: 24 Apr '13Published on: 24 Apr '13Published in: Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences


Recent drought events underscore the vulnerability of Amazon forests to understorey fires. The long-term impact of fires on biodiversity and forest carbon stocks depends on the frequency of fire damages and deforestation rates of burned forests. Here, we characterized the spatial and temporal dynamics of understorey fires (1999-2010) and deforestation (2001-2010) in southern Amazonia using new satellite-based estimates of annual fire activity (greater than 50 ha) and deforestation (greater than 10 ha). Understorey forest fires burned more than 85 500 km(2) between 1999 and 2010 (2.8% of all forests). Forests that burned more than once accounted for 16 per cent of all understorey fires. Repeated fire activity was concentrated in Mato Grosso and eastern Pará, whereas single fires were widespread across the arc of deforestation. Routine fire activity in Mato Grosso coincided with annual periods of low night-time relative humidity, suggesting a strong climate control on both single and repeated fires. Understorey fires occurred in regions with active deforestation, yet the interannual variability of fire and deforestation were uncorrelated, and only 2.6 per cent of forests that burned between 1999 and 2008 were deforested for agricultural use by 2010. Evidence from the past decade suggests that future projections of frontier landscapes in Amazonia should separately consider economic drivers to project future deforestation and climate to project fire risk.