Letter | Published:

Human amplification of drought-induced biomass burning in Indonesia since 1960

Nature Geoscience volume 2, pages 185188 (2009) | Download Citation



Much of the interannual variability in global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations has been attributed to variability of emissions from biomass burning1,2,3. Under drought conditions, burning in Indonesia is a disproportionate contributor to these emissions, as seen in the 1997/98 haze disaster1,4. Yet our understanding of the frequency, severity and underlying causes of severe biomass burning in Indonesia is limited because of the absence of satellite data that are useful for fire monitoring before the mid-1990s. Here we present a continuous monthly record of severe burning events from 1960 to 2006 using the visibility reported at airports in the region. We find that these fires cause extremely poor air quality conditions and that they occur only during years when precipitation falls below a well defined threshold. Historically, large fire events have occurred in Sumatra at least since the 1960s. By contrast, the first large fires are recorded in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) in the 1980s, despite earlier severe droughts. We attribute this difference to different patterns of changes in land use and population density. Fires in Indonesia have often been linked with El Niño1,2,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12, but we find that the Indian Ocean Dipole pattern is as important a contributing factor.

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We thank W. Spangler at the National Center for Atmospheric Research for assistance in processing the visibility data, C. Hong for assistance with Supplementary Section S5 and N. MacKendrick, K. Moore and B. de Groot for helpful reviews. R.D.F. was supported by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada scholarship, and G.R.v.d.W. by a Veni grant from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research.

Author information


  1. Department of Physics, University of Toronto, Toronto, M5S 1A7, Canada

    • Robert D. Field
  2. Faculty of Earth and Life Sciences, VU University Amsterdam, Amsterdam, 1081HV, Netherlands

    • Guido R. van der Werf
  3. Department of Mathematics and Statistics, San Diego State University, San Diego 92182, USA

    • Samuel S. P. Shen


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R.D.F. conceived of the study and conducted the data analysis under the graduate supervision of S.S.P.S. All authors contributed to interpretation of the results and writing of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Robert D. Field.

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