The 2015 fire season was the most severe ever observed by NASA Earth Observing System satellites, a new study shows. As we reported in December, 2015 was an intense fire season in Indonesia because the drying effects of El Niño exacerbated seasonal fires lit by growers. Many farmers lost control of fires, which then spread through dried-out peat deposits. Peat fires produce thick, acrid smoke rich with greenhouse gases.
Since our story was published, scientists tracking fire activity with several satellite sensors have further analyzed the 2015 data and compared the 2015 fire season with 2006, another severe burning season. The group of scientists looked at measurements of carbon monoxide from the Measurement of Pollution in the Troposphere (MOPITT), the Microwave Limb Sounder (MLS), and the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS). They tracked aerosol pollution with Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) and the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI). They also used MODIS to track the number of actively burning fires. Finally, they used the Tropical Rainfal Measuring Mission (TRMM) to track rainfall.
Some of the results from their analysis are shown in the chart below. Note that red lines indicate trends in 2006 (also a severe fire year); blacks lines indicate 2015. The tick marks on the X-axis indicate the month of the year. Comparing the two years, it is clear that 2015 was the more severe fire season. The sensors generally detected higher levels (or longer duration of emissions) of each pollutant in 2015. The peak number of fires observed by MODIS was slightly higher in 2006, but the sensor detected more fires overall in 2015. In both 2006 and 2015, fire activity increased rapidly as rainfall decreased.
To see how the 2015 fires compared to severe fire seasons before the Earth Observing System satellites were in space, Goddard Institute for Space Studies scientist Robert Field looked back at longer-term records of visibility collected at Indonesian airports. The chart below compares visibility in 2015 with 1997 and 1991—two other years that were dry because of El Niño. (Note: Bext stands for extinction coefficient; a higher extinction coefficient means more smoke was in the air. The upper part of the chart shows how much rain fell. .) By that measure, 1997 was a far more severe fire season. In Sumatra, visibility was also lower in 1991, though in Kalimantan. visibility was about the same in 2015 and 1991.
Still, greenhouse gas emissions from the 2015 Indonesian fires were considerable. Using the Global Fire Emissions Database, the scientists estimate that 2015 released 380 teragrams of carbon—which is roughly more than the annual fossil fuel emissions of Japan.
“Without significant reforms in land use and the adoption of early warning triggers tied to precipitation forecasts, these intense fire episodes will reoccur during future droughts, usually associated with El Niño events,” the authors emphasized.