Tracking Changes in Vegetation Structure Following Fire in the Cerrado Biome Using ICESat-2

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Konduri, V. S., Morton, D. C., & Andela, N. (2023). Tracking changes in vegetation structure following fire in the Cerrado biome using ICESat-2. Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences, 128, e2022JG007046.


Fires mediate grass and tree competition and alter vegetation structure in savanna ecosystems, with important implications for regional carbon, water, and energy fluxes. However, direct observations of how fire frequency influences vegetation structure and post-fire recovery have been limited to small experimental field studies. Here, we combined lidar-derived canopy height and canopy cover from NASA's Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite-2 with over two decades of burned area data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer sensors to provide the first biome-wide estimates of post-fire changes in canopy structure for major vegetation types in the Cerrado (Brazil). Mean canopy height decreased with increasing burn frequency for all natural cover types, with the greatest decline observed for forests and savannas. The ability to separate changes in fractional canopy cover from height growth using lidar data highlighted the long-time scales of vegetation recovery in forests and savannas after fire. For forests in medium and high precipitation areas, canopy cover returned to unburned values within 5 years following fire, whereas mean canopy height remained below unburned values, even in the oldest fires (14–20 years). Recovery times increased with decreasing rainfall, with average values of both fractional cover and canopy height below unburned areas after 14–20 years for savannas. We observed gradual recovery of vegetation height and cover over decades, even in mesic or wet savanna regions like the Cerrado. Infrequent fire activity, particularly in areas with greater land management, influences ecosystem structure across the biome, with important consequences for biodiversity conservation.