Biomass Burning Fact Sheet

Biomass burning is the burning of living and dead vegetation. It includes the human-initiated burning of vegetation for land clearing and land-use change as well as natural, lightning-induced fires. Scientists estimate that humans are responsible for about 90% of biomass burning with only a small percentage of natural fires contributing to the total amount of vegetation burned.

Burning vegetation releases large amounts of particulates (solid carbon combustion particles) and gases, including greenhouse gases that help warm the Earth. Greenhouse gases may lead to an increased warming of the Earth or human-initiated global climate change. Studies suggest that biomass burning has increased on a global scale over the last 100 years, and computer calculations indicate that a hotter Earth resulting from global warming will lead to more frequent and larger fires. Biomass burning particulates impact climate and can also affect human health when they are inhaled, causing respiratory problems.

ground-level view of burning savanna
Ground-level view of burning savanna grasslands in South Africa. Greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and solid carbon soot particulates are components of the emissions. When inhaled, the particulates lead to respiratory problems.

Since fires produce carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, biomass burning emissions significantly influence the Earth's atmosphere and climate. Biomass burning has both short- and long-term impacts on the environment. Vegetation acts as a sink—a natural storage area—for carbon dioxide by storing it over time through the process of photosynthesis. As burning occurs, it can release hundreds of years worth of stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in a matter of hours. Burning also will permanently destroy an important sink for carbon dioxide if the vegetation is not replaced.

What is the annual, global amount of greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere due to biomass burning? How does biomass burning impact the Earth's atmosphere and climate? Researchers involved in the Biomass Burning Program at NASA Langley Research Center (LaRC) are currently working to answer these questions. The major goal of this research is to quantify the effects of global fires on the composition and chemistry of the atmosphere and the Earth's climate.

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by Julia Cole
March 19, 2001


Biomass Burning
Field Experiments
Space measurements
Future Research