Global fire emissions buffered by the production of pyrogenic carbon


Landscape fires burn 3–5 million km2 of the Earth’s surface annually. They emit 2.2 Pg of carbon per year to the atmosphere, but also convert a significant fraction of the burned vegetation biomass into pyrogenic carbon. Pyrogenic carbon can be stored in terrestrial and marine pools for centuries to millennia and therefore its production can be considered a mechanism for long-term carbon sequestration. Pyrogenic carbon stocks and dynamics are not considered in global carbon cycle models, which leads to systematic errors in carbon accounting. Here we present a comprehensive dataset of pyrogenic carbon production factors from field and experimental fires and merge this with the Global Fire Emissions Database to quantify the global pyrogenic carbon production flux. We found that 256 (uncertainty range: 196–340) Tg of biomass carbon was converted annually into pyrogenic carbon between 1997 and 2016. Our central estimate equates to 12% of the annual carbon emitted globally by landscape fires, which indicates that their emissions are buffered by pyrogenic carbon production. We further estimate that cumulative pyrogenic carbon production is 60 Pg since 1750, or 33–40% of the global biomass carbon lost through land use change in this period. Our results demonstrate that pyrogenic carbon production by landscape fires could be a significant, but overlooked, sink for atmospheric CO2.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Fig. 1: Schematic of the global carbon cycle including the buffer and legacy roles of PyC.
Fig. 2: The box plots show the distributions of PPyC values for each of the biomass component classes in the production factor dataset.
Fig. 3: Annual global PyC production estimates from GFED4s+PyC for the period 1997–2016.
Fig. 4: Annual average PyC production rates for the period 1997–2016 from GFED4s+PyC, based on central production factors (Fig. 2).

Data availability

The global dataset of the PyC production factors is available as a supplementary data file (GlobalPyC_supplementarydataset.xlsx). This dataset will also be uploaded to the GFED website ( and updated with new data as it becomes available. Supplementary Section 4 contains full references to the studies included in the production factor dataset. Burned area and fire emissions data are publicly available at the GFED website. Additional ancillary data are available from the corresponding author on request.


  1. 1.

    van der Werf, G. R. et al. Global fire emissions estimates during 1997–2016. Earth Syst. Sci. Data 9, 697–720 (2017).

  2. 2.

    Landry, J. S. & Matthews, H. D. Non-deforestation fire vs. fossil fuel combustion: the source of CO2 emissions affects the global carbon cycle and climate responses. Biogeosciences 13, 2137–2149 (2016).

  3. 3.

    Yue, C. et al. How have past fire disturbances contributed to the current carbon balance of boreal ecosystems? Biogeosciences 13, 675–690 (2016).

  4. 4.

    Le Quéré, C. et al. Global carbon budget 2018. Earth Syst. Sci. Data 10, 2141–2194 (2018).

  5. 5.

    Houghton, R. A. & Nassikas, A. A. Global and regional fluxes of carbon from land use and land cover change 1850–2015. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 31, 456–472 (2017).

  6. 6.

    Ciais, P. et al. in Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.) 465–570 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).

  7. 7.

    Hantson, S. et al. The status and challenge of global fire modelling. Biogeosciences 13, 3359–3375 (2016).

  8. 8.

    Rabin, S. S. et al. The fire modeling intercomparison project (FireMIP), phase 1: experimental and analytical protocols with detailed model descriptions. Geosci. Model Dev. 10, 1175–1197 (2017).

  9. 9.

    Bowman, D. et al. Fire in the Earth system. Science 324, 481–484 (2009).

  10. 10.

    Kuhlbusch, T. A. J. Black carbon and the carbon cycle. Science 280, 1903–1904 (1998).

  11. 11.

    Lehmann, J. et al. Australian climate–carbon cycle feedback reduced by soil black carbon. Nat. Geosci. 1, 832–835 (2008).

  12. 12.

    Santín, C. et al. Towards a global assessment of pyrogenic carbon from vegetation fires. Glob. Change Biol. 22, 76–91 (2016).

  13. 13.

    Bird, M. I., Wynn, J. G., Saiz, G., Wurster, C. M. & McBeath, A. The pyrogenic carbon cycle. Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci. 43, 273–298 (2015).

  14. 14.

    Landry, J.-S. & Matthews, H. D. The global pyrogenic carbon cycle and its impact on the level of atmospheric CO2 over past and future centuries. Glob. Change Biol. 23, 3205–3218 (2017).

  15. 15.

    Schmidt, M. W. I. Carbon budget in the black. Nature 427, 305–307 (2004).

  16. 16.

    Reisser, M., Purves, R. S., Schmidt, M. W. I. & Abiven, S. Pyrogenic carbon in soils: a literature-based inventory and a global estimation of its content in soil organic carbon and stocks. Front. Earth Sci. 4, 80 (2016).

  17. 17.

    Ohlson, M., Dahlberg, B., Økland, T., Brown, K. J. & Halvorsen, R. The charcoal carbon pool in boreal forest soils. Nat. Geosci. 2, 692–695 (2009).

  18. 18.

    Koele, N. et al. Amazon Basin forest pyrogenic carbon stocks: first estimate of deep storage. Geoderma 306, 237–243 (2017).

  19. 19.

    Masiello, C. A. & Druffel, E. R. M. Black carbon in deep-sea sediments. Science 280, 1911–1913 (1998).

  20. 20.

    Schmidt, M. W. I. & Noack, A. G. Black carbon in soils and sediments: analysis, distribution, implications, and current challenges. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 14, 777–793 (2000).

  21. 21.

    Dittmar, T. & Paeng, J. A heat-induced molecular signature in marine dissolved organic matter. Nat. Geosci. 2, 175–179 (2009).

  22. 22.

    Wagner, S., Jaffé, R. & Stubbins, A. Dissolved black carbon in aquatic ecosystems. Limnol. Oceanogr. Lett. 3, 168–185 (2018).

  23. 23.

    Bond, T. C. et al. Bounding the role of black carbon in the climate system: a scientific assessment. J. Geophys. Res. Atmos. 118, 5380–5552 (2013).

  24. 24.

    Booth, B. & Bellouin, N. Black carbon and atmospheric feedbacks. Nature 519, 167–168 (2015).

  25. 25.

    Kuzyakov, Y., Bogomolova, I. & Glaser, B. Biochar stability in soil: decomposition during eight years and transformation as assessed by compound-specific 14C analysis. Soil Biol. Biochem. 70, 229–236 (2014).

  26. 26.

    Schneider, M. P. W., Hilf, M., Vogt, U. F. & Schmidt, M. W. I. The benzene polycarboxylic acid (BPCA) pattern of wood pyrolyzed between 200 °C and 1000 °C. Org. Geochem. 41, 1082–1088 (2010).

  27. 27.

    Wiedemeier, D. B. et al. Aromaticity and degree of aromatic condensation of char. Org. Geochem. 78, 135–143 (2015).

  28. 28.

    Jaffé, R. et al. Global charcoal mobilization from soils via dissolution and riverine transport to the oceans. Science 340, 345–347 (2013).

  29. 29.

    Coppola, A. I. et al. Global-scale evidence for the refractory nature of riverine black carbon. Nat. Geosci. 11, 584–588 (2018).

  30. 30.

    Lohmann, R. et al. Fluxes of soot black carbon to South Atlantic sediments. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycle 23, GB1015 (2009).

  31. 31.

    Middelburg, J. J., Nieuwenhuize, J. & van Breugel, P. Black carbon in marine sediments. Mar. Chem. 65, 245–252 (1999).

  32. 32.

    Preston, C. M. & Schmidt, M. W. I. Black (pyrogenic) carbon: a synthesis of current knowledge and uncertainties with special consideration of boreal regions. Biogeosciences 3, 397–420 (2006).

  33. 33.

    Goldberg, E. D. Black Carbon in the Environment: Properties and Distribution (John Wiley and Sons, 1985).

  34. 34.

    Kuhlbusch, Ta. J. & Crutzen, P. J. Toward a global estimate of black carbon in residues of vegetation fires representing a sink of atmospheric CO2 and a source of O2. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 9, 491–501 (1995).

  35. 35.

    Santín, C., Doerr, S. H., Preston, C. M. & González-Rodríguez, G. Pyrogenic organic matter production from wildfires: a missing sink in the global carbon cycle. Glob. Change Biol. 21, 1621–1633 (2015).

  36. 36.

    Wei, X., Hayes, D. J., Fraver, S. & Chen, G. Global pyrogenic carbon production during recent decades has created the potential for a large, long‐term sink of atmospheric CO2. J. Geophys. Res. Biogeosci. 123, 3682–3696 (2018).

  37. 37.

    DeLuca, T. H. & Aplet, G. H. Charcoal and carbon storage in forest soils of the Rocky Mountain West. Front. Ecol. Environ. 6, 18–24 (2008).

  38. 38.

    Singh, N., Abiven, S., Torn, M. S. & Schmidt, M. W. I. Fire-derived organic carbon in soil turns over on a centennial scale. Biogeosciences 9, 2847–2857 (2012).

  39. 39.

    Schmidt, M. W. I. et al. Persistence of soil organic matter as an ecosystem property. Nature 478, 49–56 (2011).

  40. 40.

    Thurner, M. et al. Evaluation of climate-related carbon turnover processes in global vegetation models for boreal and temperate forests. Glob. Change Biol. 23, 3076–3091 (2017).

  41. 41.

    Van Marle, M. J. E. et al. Historic global biomass burning emissions for CMIP6 (BB4CMIP) based on merging satellite observations with proxies and fire models (1750–2015). Geosci. Model Dev. 10, 3329–3357 (2017).

  42. 42.

    Yang, J. et al. Century-scale patterns and trends of global pyrogenic carbon emissions and fire influences on terrestrial carbon balance. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 29, 1549–1566 (2015).

  43. 43.

    Schultz, M. G. et al. Global wildland fire emissions from 1960 to 2000. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 22, GB2002 (2008).

  44. 44.

    Yang, J. et al. Spatial and temporal patterns of global burned area in response to anthropogenic and environmental factors: reconstructing global fire history for the 20th and early 21st centuries. J. Geophys. Res. Biogeosci. 119, 249–263 (2014).

  45. 45.

    Chen, Y., Morton, D. C., Andela, N., Giglio, L. & Randerson, J. T. How much global burned area can be forecast on seasonal time scales using sea surface temperatures? Environ. Res. Lett. 11, 045001 (2016).

  46. 46.

    Chen, Y. et al. A pan-tropical cascade of fire driven by El Niño/Southern Oscillation. Nat. Clim. Change 7, 906–911 (2017).

  47. 47.

    Houghton, R. A. et al. Carbon emissions from land use and land-cover change. Biogeosciences 9, 5125–5142 (2012).

  48. 48.

    Woolf, D., Amonette, J. E., Street-Perrott, F. A., Lehmann, J. & Joseph, S. Sustainable biochar to mitigate global climate change. Nat. Commun. 1, 56 (2010).

  49. 49.

    Surawski, N. C., Sullivan, A. L., Roxburgh, S. H., Meyer, C. P. M. & Polglase, P. J. Incorrect interpretation of carbon mass balance biases global vegetation fire emission estimates. Nat. Commun. 7, 11536 (2016).

  50. 50.

    Santín, C., Doerr, S. H., Preston, C. M. & González‐Rodríguez, G. Pyrogenic organic matter produced during wildfires can act as a carbon sink – a reply to Billings & Schlesinger (2015). Glob. Change Biol. 24, e399 (2018).

  51. 51.

    Houghton, R. A. & Nassikas, A. A. Global and regional fluxes of carbon from land use and land cover change 1850–2015. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 31, 456–472 (2017).

  52. 52.

    Leifeld, J. et al. Pyrogenic carbon contributes substantially to carbon storage in intact and degraded northern peatlands. L. Degrad. Dev. 29, 2082–2091 (2018).

  53. 53.

    Doerr, S. H., Santín, C., Merino, A., Belcher, C. M. & Baxter, G. Fire as a removal mechanism of pyrogenic carbon from the environment: effects of fire and pyrogenic carbon characteristics. Front. Earth Sci. 6, 127 (2018).

  54. 54.

    Saiz, G. et al. Charcoal re-combustion efficiency in tropical savannas. Geoderma 219–220, 40–45 (2014).

  55. 55.

    Santín, C., Doerr, S. H., Preston, C. & Bryant, R. Consumption of residual pyrogenic carbon by wildfire. Int. J. Wildl. Fire 22, 1072–1077 (2013).

  56. 56.

    Andela, N. et al. The Global Fire Atlas of individual fire size, duration, speed, and direction. Earth Syst. Sci. Data 11, 529–552 (2019).

  57. 57.

    Archibald, S., Lehmann, C. E. R., Gomez-Dans, J. L. & Bradstock, R. A. Defining pyromes and global syndromes of fire regimes. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 110, 6442–6447 (2013).

  58. 58.

    Knorr, W., Arneth, A. & Jiang, L. Demographic controls of future global fire risk. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 781–785 (2016).

  59. 59.

    Pechony, O. & Shindell, D. T. Driving forces of global wildfires over the past millennium and the forthcoming century. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 107, 19167–19170 (2010).

  60. 60.

    Flannigan, M. et al. Global wildland fire season severity in the 21st century. Ecol. Manag. 294, 54–61 (2013).

  61. 61.

    Miesel, J., Reiner, A., Ewell, C., Maestrini, B. & Dickinson, M. Quantifying changes in total and pyrogenic carbon stocks across fire severity gradients using active wildfire incidents. Front. Earth Sci. 6, 41 (2018).

  62. 62.

    Andela, N. et al. A human-driven decline in global burned area. Science 356, 1356–1362 (2017).

  63. 63.

    Arora, V. K. & Melton, J. R. Reduction in global area burned and wildfire emissions since 1930s enhances carbon uptake by land. Nat. Commun. 9, 1326 (2018).

  64. 64.

    Flannigan, M. D. et al. Fuel moisture sensitivity to temperature and precipitation: climate change implications. Clim. Change 134, 59–71 (2016).

  65. 65.

    Wang, X. et al. Projected changes in daily fire spread across Canada over the next century. Environ. Res. Lett. 12, 025005 (2017).

  66. 66.

    Aragão, L. E. O. C. et al. 21st century drought-related fires counteract the decline of Amazon deforestation carbon emissions. Nat. Commun. 9, 536 (2018).

  67. 67.

    Krawchuk, M. A. & Moritz, M. A. Burning issues: statistical analyses of global fire data to inform assessments of environmental change. Environmetrics 25, 472–481 (2014).

  68. 68.

    Coppola, A. I., Ziolkowski, L. A., Masiello, C. A. & Druffel, E. R. M. Aged black carbon in marine sediments and sinking particles. Geophys. Res. Lett. 41, 2427–2433 (2014).

  69. 69.

    Singh, B. P., Cowie, A. L. & Smernik, R. J. Biochar carbon stability in a clayey soil as a function of feedstock and pyrolysis temperature. Environ. Sci. Technol. 46, 11770–11778 (2012).

  70. 70.

    Ziolkowski, L. A. & Druffel, E. R. M. Aged black carbon identified in marine dissolved organic carbon. Geophys. Res. Lett. 37, L16601 (2010).

  71. 71.

    Giglio, L., Randerson, J. T. & van der Werf, G. R. Analysis of daily, monthly, and annual burned area using the fourth-generation Global Fire Emissions Database (GFED4). J. Geophys. Res. Biogeosci. 118, 317–328 (2013).

  72. 72.

    Randerson, J. T., Chen, Y., van der Werf, G. R., Rogers, B. M. & Morton, D. C. Global burned area and biomass burning emissions from small fires. J. Geophys. Res. Biogeosci. 117, G04012 (2012).

  73. 73.

    van Leeuwen, T. T. et al. Biomass burning fuel consumption rates: a field measurement database. Biogeosci. Discuss. 11, 8115–8180 (2014).

  74. 74.

    van der Werf, G. R. et al. Global fire emissions and the contribution of deforestation, savanna, forest, agricultural, and peat fires (1997–2009). Atmos. Chem. Phys. 10, 11707–11735 (2010).

  75. 75.

    Veraverbeke, S., Rogers, B. M. & Randerson, J. T. Daily burned area and carbon emissions from boreal fires in Alaska. Biogeosciences 12, 3579–3601 (2015).

  76. 76.

    Andela, N. et al. Biomass burning fuel consumption dynamics in the (sub)tropics assessed from satellite. Biogeosci. Discuss. 13, 3717–3734 (2016).

  77. 77.

    Arellano, A. F., Kasibhatla, P. S., Giglio, L., van der Werf, G. R. & Randerson, J. T. Top-down estimates of global CO sources using MOPITT measurements. Geophys. Res. Lett. 31, L01104 (2004).

  78. 78.

    Hooghiemstra, P. B. et al. Interannual variability of carbon monoxide emission estimates over South America from 2006 to 2010. J. Geophys. Res. Atmos. 117, D15308 (2012).

  79. 79.

    Huijnen, V. et al. Fire carbon emissions over maritime southeast Asia in 2015 largest since 1997. Sci. Rep. 6, 26886 (2016).

  80. 80.

    Castellanos, P., Boersma, K. F. & van der Werf, G. R. Satellite observations indicate substantial spatiotemporal variability in biomass burning NOx emission factors for South America. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 14, 3929–3943 (2014).

  81. 81.

    Bauwens, M. et al. Nine years of global hydrocarbon emissions based on source inversion of OMI formaldehyde observations. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 16, 10133–10158 (2016).

  82. 82.

    Petrenko, M. et al. The use of satellite-measured aerosol optical depth to constrain biomass burning emissions source strength in the global model GOCART. J. Geophys. Res. Atmos. 117, D18212 (2012).

  83. 83.

    Bodí, M. B. et al. Wildland fire ash: production, composition and eco-hydro-geomorphic effects. Earth Sci. Rev. 130, 103–127 (2014).

  84. 84.

    Hyde, J. C., Smith, A. M. S., Ottmar, R. D., Alvarado, E. C. & Morgan, P. The combustion of sound and rotten coarse woody debris: a review. Int. J. Wildl. Fire 20, 163 (2011).

  85. 85.

    Lutes, D. C., Keane, R. E. & Caratti, J. F. A surface fuel classification for estimating fire effects. Int. J. Wildl. Fire 18, 802 (2009).

  86. 86.

    Sandberg, D. V., Ottmar, R. D. & Cushon, G. H. Characterizing fuels in the 21st century. Int. J. Wildl. Fire 10, 381 (2001).

  87. 87.

    Hammes, K. et al. Comparison of quantification methods to measure fire-derived (black/elemental) carbon in soils and sediments using reference materials from soil, water, sediment and the atmosphere. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 21, GB3016 (2007).

  88. 88.

    Zimmerman, A. R. & Mitra, S. Trial by fire: on the terminology and methods used in pyrogenic organic carbon research. Front. Earth Sci. 5, 95 (2017).

  89. 89.

    Thurner, M. et al. Carbon stock and density of northern boreal and temperate forests. Glob. Ecol. Biogeogr. 23, 297–310 (2014).

  90. 90.

    Friedl, M. & Sulla-Menashe, D. MCD12C1 v006: MODIS/Terra+Aqua Land Cover Type Yearly L3 Global 0.05Deg (2015);

Download references


This work was funded by a Leverhulme Trust Research Project Grant awarded to S.H.D. (RPG-2014-095), a Swansea University College of Science Fund awarded to M.W.J., a Vici grant awarded to G.R.vdW. by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), and a European Union Horizon 2020 research and innovation grant awarded to C.S. (Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant 663830). We thank C. Aponte, C. Boot, G. Clay, G. Cook, F. Cotrufo, P. Fearnside, B. Goforth, R. Graham, M. Haddix, P. Homann, D. Hurst and M. Jenkins for their assistance during the collation of the global dataset of PyC production factors. We also thank B. de Groot for his part in securing funding of the Leverhulme Trust Grant.

Author information

M.W.J., C.S. and S.H.D. designed the study. S.H.D. led the Leverhulme Trust Research Project grant that funded the main body of the work. M.W.J. collated the PyC production factor dataset with support from C.S. C.S. and S.H.D. provided unpublished PyC production data. G.R.vdW. provided access to the GFED4s code. M.W.J. adapted the GFED4s code to include PyC production with the support of G.R.vdW. M.W.J. conducted the formal analysis of the production factor dataset and model outputs. All the authors contributed to the interpretation of the results. M.W.J. wrote the manuscript and produced all the figures. All the authors contributed to the refinement of the manuscript.

Correspondence to Matthew W. Jones.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary description, Supplementary Figs. 1–6 and Supplementary Tables 1–4

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark