Vegetation fires in the Anthropocene

Abstract

Vegetation fires are an essential component of the Earth system but can also cause substantial economic losses, severe air pollution, human mortality and environmental damage. Contemporary fire regimes are increasingly impacted by human activities and climate change, but, owing to the complex fire–human–climate interactions and incomplete historical or long-term datasets, it is difficult to detect and project fire-regime trajectories. In this Review, we describe recent global and regional trends in fire activity and examine projections for fire regimes in the near future. Although there are large uncertainties, it is likely that the economic and environmental impacts of vegetation fires will worsen as a result of anthropogenic climate change. These effects will be particularly prominent in flammable forests in populated temperate zones, the sparsely inhabited flammable boreal zone and fire-sensitive tropical rainforests, and will contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. The impacts of increased fire activity can be mitigated through effective stewardship of fire regimes, which should be achieved through evidence-based fire management that incorporates indigenous and local knowledge, combined with planning and design of natural and urban landscapes. Increasing transdisciplinary research is needed to fully understand how Anthropocene fire regimes are changing and how humans must adapt.

Key points

  • Vegetation fires are an ancient and essential component of the Earth system, and have shaped the evolution of plants, animals and biogeochemical processes. There are discernible global geographic and temporal patterns of fire activity reflecting the interplay of climate, vegetation and ignitions.

  • Anthropogenic influences on fire activity have become more pronounced since the late eighteenth century, reflecting the effects of industrialization and climate change, land clearance, human population growth, replacement of indigenous and traditional fire management, and the subsequent development of large-scale firefighting and fuels management in the twentieth century.

  • The human settlement and infrastructure embedded in flammable vegetation contributes to economically disastrous fires.

  • Large and frequent fires in boreal and tropical forests have the potential to cause terrestrial carbon stores to become major greenhouse gas sources, amplifying climate change.

  • Detecting and predicting changes in fire activity is difficult due to relatively brief fire records, bioregional variability and human involvement. To understand how Anthropocene fire regimes are changing, and how humans must adapt, researchers from biological sciences, physical sciences and humanities and fire-management practitioners must work together.

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Fig. 1: Vegetation fire in the Earth system.
Fig. 2: Global patterns of fire and vegetation.
Fig. 3: Trends in vegetation-fire activity.
Fig. 4: Relationships and feedbacks between climate, fire and vegetation.
Fig. 5: Conversion of infrequently burned forest to a frequently burned, treeless state.
Fig. 6: Adaptation to Anthropocene fire regimes on fire-prone landscape.

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Acknowledgements

The authors thank Grant Williamson, University of Tasmania, for assistance with the Tasmanian area burned data and Rick McRae, ACT Emergency Services Agency, for the NSW pyrocumulonimbus data.

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Contributions

D.M.J.S.B. coordinated the project, led the writing and contributed to the design of the graphics. C.A.K. led the design of the graphics and contributed to the writing. J.T.A. led the climate analyses and contributed to the graphic design and writing. F.H.J. contributed to the project development, graphic design and writing. G.R.v.d.W. led the analysis of carbon emissions and contributed to the graphic design and writing. M.F. contributed to the project development, graphic design and writing.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to David M. J. S. Bowman.

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Related links

Canadian National Fire Database: https://cwfis.cfs.nrcan.gc.ca/ha/nfdb

Global Fire Atlas: https://www.globalfiredata.org/fireatlas.html

Global Fire Emissions Database: https://www.globalfiredata.org

MODIS Burned Area Product: https://modis.gsfc.nasa.gov/data/dataprod/mod45.php

NatCatSERVICE: https://www.munichre.com/en/solutions/for-industry-clients/natcatservice.html

National Interagency Fire Center: https://www.nifc.gov/index.html

Glossary

Biomass

Non-fossilized organic matter, including living and dead phytomass, organic soils, and animal remains and excrement.

Pyrocumulonimbus

Intense convective thunderstorms that develop above highly energetic wildfires, which can reach the stratosphere and create localized weather, including rain, hail, lightning and pyro-tornadoes.

Fire regimes

Characteristic syndrome of landscape fire with respect to behaviour, frequency, seasonality, geographic scale and pattern, with predictable biological responses and environmental effects.

Regenerate

The process of plant recovery following fire damage, either from seeds stored in the soil or vegetatively from specialized tissues located in roots, stems and branches.

Ignitions

Sufficient energy to initiate combustion of plant biomass, and can be natural, such as from lightning, or directly set by humans either deliberately, accidentally or indirectly.

Extreme vegetation-fire events

Extreme fire events are characterized by some combination of the following: anomalous fire behaviour, involving extremely high energy releases, very rapid rate of spread, very large flame heights; massive emission of smoke and greenhouse gas pollution; prolonged duration of fires, enormous geographical scale of burned areas, or both; fires causing unusually adverse biological, atmospheric or geomorphological effects.

Anthropocene

The geologically novel planetary state resulting from human activities, although the start date of the state is debated.

Pyrogeography

The holistic study of fire on Earth achieved by combining and synthesizing knowledge and methods from the sciences and humanities.

Dendrochronology

Analysis of growth rings in the trunks of suitable tree species can enable reconstruction of past environmental conditions, resolved to annual or seasonal scales.

Fire intensity

The amount of energy released per unit time from a fire front.

Fire severity

A measure of the biological impact of fires, routinely assessed by the degree of canopy or understory defoliation and foliage consumption.

Aridification

A process where climate change can lead to sustained regional drying with concomitant changes in vegetation, fire regimes and geomorphological processes.

Climate refugia

A landscape setting with an atypical climate where species poorly adapted to ambient environmental conditions are able to persist, for example, a cloudy mountain top.

Fire refugia

A landscape setting that limits the egress of fires, enabling species poorly adapted to ambient fire regimes to persist, such as a deep ravine.

Wildland–urban interface

The intermix of urban areas with flammable vegetation that is the locus of the most deadly and economically destructive wildfires.

Biomass smoke

A dynamic mixture of gases and aerosols, made up of organic and inorganic chemical species, emitted during the combustion of biomass.

Pyro-tornadoes

Extreme fire behaviours can result in intense localized convection that spawns a violently rotating column of burning gases and debris.

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Bowman, D.M.J.S., Kolden, C.A., Abatzoglou, J.T. et al. Vegetation fires in the Anthropocene. Nat Rev Earth Environ 1, 500–515 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-020-0085-3

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