National Aeronautics and Space Administration


Date of this Version



Randerson, J. T., Y. Chen, G. R. van der Werf, B. M. Rogers, and D. C. Morton (2012), Global burned area and biomass burning emissions from small fires, J. Geophys. Res., 117, G04012, doi:10.1029/2012JG002128.


This article is a U.S. government work, and is not subject to copyright in the United States.


In several biomes, including croplands, wooded savannas, and tropical forests, many small fires occur each year that are well below the detection limit of the current generation of global burned area products derived from moderate resolution surface reflectance imagery. Although these fires often generate thermal anomalies that can be detected by satellites, their contributions to burned area and carbon fluxes have not been systematically quantified across different regions and continents. Here we developed a preliminary method for combining 1-km thermal anomalies (active fires) and 500 m burned area observations from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) to estimate the influence of these fires. In our approach, we calculated the number of active fires inside and outside of 500 m burn scars derived from reflectance data. We estimated small fire burned area by computing the difference normalized burn ratio (dNBR) for these two sets of active fires and then combining these observations with other information. In a final step, we used the Global Fire Emissions Database version 3 (GFED3) biogeochemical model to estimate the impact of these fires on biomass burning emissions. We found that the spatial distribution of active fires and 500 m burned areas were in close agreement in ecosystems that experience large fires, including savannas across southern Africa and Australia and boreal forests in North America and Eurasia. In other areas, however, we observed many active fires outside of burned area perimeters. Fire radiative power was lower for this class of active fires. Small fires substantially increased burned area in several continental-scale regions, including Equatorial Asia (157%), Central America (143%), and Southeast Asia (90%) during 2001–2010. Globally, accounting for small fires increased total burned area by approximately by 35%, from 345 Mha/yr to 464 Mha/yr. A formal quantification of uncertainties was not possible, but sensitivity analyses of key model parameters caused estimates of global burned area increases from small fires to vary between 24% and 54%. Biomass burning carbon emissions increased by 35% at a global scale when small fires were included in GFED3, from 1.9 Pg C/yr to 2.5 Pg C/yr. The contribution of tropical forest fires to year-to-year variability in carbon fluxes increased because small fires amplified emissions from Central America, South America and Southeast Asia—regions where drought stress and burned area varied considerably from year to year in response to El Nino-Southern Oscillation and other climate modes.