Research co-produced by CIFOR named a highlight of 2017 by Environmental Research Letters

A study in which scientists from the Center of International Forestry Research (CIFOR) collaborated with researchers from Columbia University has been included in the 2017 Highlights that the renowned Environmental Research Letters has recently issued.

The study, “Heightened fire probability in Indonesia in non-drought conditions: the effect of increasing temperatures”, looked at drivers, other than droughts, that heighten the risk of forest fires. Katia Fernandes, a research scientist from the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) at Columbia University, Christopher Martius, CIFOR Climate Change, Energy & Low-Carbon Team Leader, and other scientists from IRI, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and Temple University collaborated on the study.

Read the study here.

Although fires are usually started by humans during the dry season, they spread quickly during El Nino-driven droughts, but researchers noticed that fires can also occur when the dry seasons are not particularly dry. That led them to think about what other factors could contribute to the fire problem.

The researchers focused on the role that temperature plays in affecting fire risk in a tropical climate, using Indonesia as their case study. The study used a statistical model that was built upon more than 20 years of data from meteorological stations and remotely gathered observations of fires. Focused on blaze-prone areas of Sumatra and Kalimantan in Borneo, the data revealed that if the Indonesian dry season is unusually dry, temperature does not play a significant role in sparking fires. However, when the dry season is wet or average and temperatures are unusually high, the risk of fires soars.

The authors explain that as temperatures rise in normal-to-wet conditions during dry season, transpired water by vegetation and land surface water evaporates faster. This process dries out soil and vegetation, leaving it more vulnerable to fires. The study also includes predictions for Indonesia for the next couple of decades. Although rainfall is not expected to change in the near future, temperatures will continue to rise. That means a greater probability of fires in years when Indonesia is not experiencing drought. It also suggests that the country may have to bid farewell to the relief of wet, cool seasons when fire risk is currently low.

“Being named a Highlight of 2017 by Environmental Research Letters is a great honor for Katia and all of the colleagues who helped analyze data and put together this study,” said Martius. “Not only is it a nice recognition, more importantly, this means more people will be able to read our study on something that isn’t intuitive at all – fires breaking out in the absence of drought.”

Further reading:
Heightened fire probability in Indonesia in non-drought conditions: the effect of increasing temperatures
Wet and Wild: Indonesian Forest Fires
Clearing the smoke: the causes and consequences of Indonesia’s fires
Indonesia on fire again … and again?