Coupling Burning Practices, Vegetation Cover Change, and Fire Regimes to Determine Fire-Emission Dynamics

This project focuses on improving estimates of emissions from the most frequently and widely burned areas on Earth, the savanna in Africa. Savanna fires emit large quantities of greenhouse gases and aerosol particles. While it is increasing recognized that these fires play an important role in the global carbon cycle, there are few accurate estimates of their emissions and none from West Africa which is that continent's most active fire region. This interdisciplinary research project will develop a model of emission dynamics to determine how emissions change over time by linking changes in the fire regimes to changes in land-use and land-cover patterns. Available estimates of emissions from savannas contain high levels of uncertainty, because they have been based on very broad generalizations of complex landscapes. To improve emissions estimates, the investigators will use a new approach to develop a model based on the actual burning practices of people who set fires. Building on an existing database, they will develop a system to classify savanna vegetation types as defined by fire users and link this classification scheme to fire maps derived from satellite imagery. These data will be combined with field-based measurements of emissions of key greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and methane. These data will be analyzed and combined with data on changes in land use and cover to develop a model of how emissions change over time. The results of these analyses will produce one of the first accurate estimates of emissions from the heavily burned West African savanna, which will be used to quantify the sources of error in existing emissions estimates. 

This project will provide a new model of emissions built on the practices of African fire users as well as one of the first models of fire regime dynamics based on land-use and land-cover changes in Africa. Project results will be used to predict changes in fire emissions from the African continent, with the new models producing results that will provide valuable and accurate data for those attempting to improve global models of emissions from fire. The project will yield much-needed local-scale information regarding fire regimes by disclosing those areas associated with high uncertainties in the global-scale models of emissions and by suggesting ways to improve them. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change requires that emissions estimates include an assessment of uncertainties. This project will provide such an estimate. The project will strengthen research capacities by facilitating graduate research. It will facilitate collaborative relationships between U.S. and African researchers. The investigators will help conduct "fire seminars" to disseminate results in the study region with the goal of improving local and regional fire management efforts that are currently hampered by a lack of data. The seminars will provide a forum to explore more effective ways of disseminating scientific information to local residents in regions far beyond the study area. This project is supported by the NSF Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH) Program.





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West African Savanna