Dramatic new satellite maps showing fire activity across the entire Earth for
the past year are providing a unique picture of seasonal and yearly fire
activity. The maps are a milestone in the use of satellite data for creating a
long-term fire record that is crucial for understanding the impact of fire on
life and climate.
Using daily, global fire detection provided by the Moderate Resolution Imaging
Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite, scientists at Goddard Space
Flight Center and the University of Maryland have been mapping fire activity for
the entire surface of the Earth every day since February 2000. Never before have
scientists had the opportunity to map fire across the entire Earth with such
detail, accuracy, and frequency.
Christopher Justice, of the Department of Geography at University of Maryland,
is the project’s lead scientist. He says, “Fire plays a central role in the
Earth System. It impacts plant and animal habitat, air and water quality,
greenhouse gas emissions, and human lives. MODIS’ fire detection capabilities
are a big step forward in satellite-based fire mapping. MODIS can detect fires
across the entire Earth more accurately than any previous satellite sensor, and
it has a higher temperature threshold, which means it can tell the temperature
of even very hot fires.” The near-daily global coverage gives scientists an
excellent opportunity to study global fire behavior.
The MODIS maps demonstrate the extreme fire seasons seen this year in the US,
Australia, and Siberia. The maps also demonstrate fire behavior that would
surprise most people, highlighting the contrast between fire size and intensity
and frequency. Across the United States, large, intense fires in Western forests
attract a lot of attention, but it is the smaller, more numerous fires in the
Southeast that dominate the maps. Across the world, the widespread fires that
burn each year in the savannas of Africa, Australia, and Brazil dwarf even the
most significant fire season in the western United States as far as total
acreage and number of fires.
The image above shows fires during August 1522, 2002. The greatest
concentrations of fires are in the Amazon, Southern Africa, and Eastern Europe.
In addition, there is a dense concentration of fires in Siberia.