No smoke without fire
On average around 3.5 million square km of Earth’s surface burns annually, equivalent to a third of the area of Europe, but the impacts of this cannot be assumes because of large interrannual and spatial variability.
Earth’s savannah’s typically show fire return intervals of only a few years, compared to hundreds of years in parts of the boreal forest and every year in agricultural areas where residue burning is practiced after harvest. Every one of these burns releases particulate-laden smoke into our atmosphere, which can cause serious problems for air quality even far downwind. Additionally, those that involve long-term alterations to land cover -
such as tropical deforestation and peat fires - represent a net transfer of carbon from the land to the atmosphere, contributing to the drivers of climate change. Earth orbiting satellites are the only way to keep track of these fires, so we can quantify how much smoke and carbon is being emitted and what its effect might be.
Research by Professor Martin Wooster and his research team has led to new ways to use satellite data to routinely quantify landscape fire emissions. Wooster developed a new algorithm to quantity the radiative heat (or Fire Radiative Power; FRP) that a landscape fire is emitting as it burns. This index can be used to directly estimate the fire’s smoke and carbon emissions. They were the first to apply this method to geostationary satellites, which observe the Earth almost continuously from a 36,000 km orbit and so can be used to keep an almost constant watch on landscape fires and their emissions.
- The King’s team wrote the computer code used by Europe’s EUMETSAT Space Agency to detect fires and map their FRP across all of Europe and Africa from the Meteostat satellite 96 times per day, and the next evolution (Meteosat 3rd Generation) will have a specific design to optimise this capability. These data have widespread impact, for example in South Africa they aid fire management in national parks, and the ESKOM Power Company uses them in real-time to decide which power lines to temporarily turn off when there are fires burning close by.
- NASA uses the FRP algorithm developed by Wooster in its systems to monitor global wildfires every day from low-Earth orbiting spacecraft. Through NASA’s open data policy, thousands of researchers and practitioners around the world have near-real time access to this information.
- The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service utilises the NASA and EUMETSAT active fire data in the Global Fire Assimilation System (GFAS) that Wooster and team helped develop. This feeds information on fire emissions to a global atmosphere model that helps forecast worldwide locations of reduced air quality, ultimately aiding early-warnings to vulnerable citizens and policy developments targeting improvements such as conventions on long-range transport of air pollution.