Changes in Amazon Forest Structure from Land-Use Fires: Integrating Satellite Remote Sensing and Ecosystem Modeling

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2008-11-17

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Fire is the dominant method of deforestation and agricultural maintenance in Amazonia, and these land-use fires frequently escape their intended boundaries and burn into adjacent forests. Initial understory fires may increase forest flammability, thereby creating a positive fire feedback and the potential for long-term changes in Amazon forest structure. The four studies in this dissertation describe the development and integration of satellite remote sensing and ecosystem modeling approaches to characterize land-use fires and their consequences in southern Amazon forests. The dissertation contributes three new methods: use of the local frequency of satellite-based active fire detections to distinguish between deforestation and maintenance fires, use of satellite data time series to identify canopy damage from understory fires, and development of a height-structured fire sub-model in Ecosystem Demography, an advanced ecosystem model, to evaluate the impacts of a positive fire feedback on forest structure and composition. Conclusions from the dissertation demonstrate that the expansion of mechanized agricultural production in southern Amazonia increased the frequency and duration of fire use compared to less intensive methods of deforestation for pasture. Based on this increase in the frequency of land-use fires, fire emissions from current deforestation may be higher than estimated for previous decades. Canopy damage from understory fires was widespread in both dry and wet years, suggesting that drought conditions may not be necessary to burn extensive areas of southern Amazon forests. Understory fires were five times more common in previously-burned than unburned forest, providing satellite-based evidence for a positive fire feedback in southern Amazonia. The impact of this positive fire feedback on forest structure and composition was assessed using the Ecosystem Demography model. Scenarios of continued understory fires under current climate conditions show the potential to trap forests in a fire-prone structure dominated by early-successional trees, similar to secondary forests, reducing net carbon storage by 20-46% within 100 years. In summary, satellite and model-based results from the dissertation demonstrate that fire-damaged forests are an extensive and long-term component of the frontier landscape in southern Amazonia and suggest that a positive fire feedback could maintain long-term changes in forest structure and composition in the region.

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