Update: Fires in Southeast Asian peatlands off the charts

A peatland fire smoulders, SE Asia (photo courtesy of Dr T. Smith)

A peatland fire smoulders, SE Asia (photo courtesy of Dr T. Smith)

Fires break the record for emissions recorded by the Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring System

Southeast Asian fires break the record for emissions recorded by the Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring System

Last week, the UK-TPWG heard from Dr Mark Parrington at the European Centre for Medium Range Forecasts. The Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring System (CAMS) has been used to track the fires in Southeast Asia, producing some excellent maps showing the spread of aerosols across the region, and allowing us to monitor events as they happen.

CAMS produces maps of aerosols across the world, and the latest forecasts are provided on their website every day. The fire emissions are from MODIS observations of fire radiative power which are then used in the Global Fire Assimilation System (GFAS) to produce daily emissions data. So a week on from the last update, we can now say that the fires this year are officially record breaking. In the last few days, emissions have approached 15 TgC/day, the highest ever recorded since these observations began in 2000. As Dr Tom Smith (KCL) has commented on twitter, this is the equivalent of New York City’s emissions for an entire year.

Map of Biomass burning aerosols from 24th September produced by the Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring System

Map of Biomass burning aerosols from 24th September produced by the Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring System

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Extensive peatland fires choke Southeast Asia

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A brief report from the front line courtesy of UK-TPWG member Dr Thomas Smith (Kings College London), and Dr Mark Parrington of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts

August and September 2015 have seen some of the worst peatland fires in Southeast Asia for ten years, leading some to speculate that the fires may match those in 1997 when greenhouse gas emissions from peatland fires contributed the equivalent of between 13-40 % of all annual man-made carbon emissions from fossil fuels. Not only is this a disaster in terms of carbon emissions and ecosystem damage, it has caused an unhealthy haze of smoke to spread across the region. These clouds of harmful gases and particulates are so large that they can be seen from space, often covering the entirety of peninsular Malaysia. In some areas, thousands of people have also been forced to move away to escape the smoke. With COP21 negotiations in Paris due to begin soon, there can be no greater illustration of the importance of proper peatland management and restoration with regard to greenhouse gas emissions and public health than the large fires currently burning in Southeast Asia.

Dr Mark Parrington has provided us with plots which record the scale of the emissions from peatland fires. These graphs have been produced using outputs from the Global Fire Assimilation System (part of the Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service), and they clearly show that emissions have already exceeded the average for the period from 2003-2014.

Emissions of greenhouse gases as the result of peatland and forest fires in Southeast Asia

Emissions of greenhouse gases as the result of peatland and forest fires in Southeast Asia

Although we know that the smoke is unhealthy, the precise make-up of the smoke from tropical peatland fires remains a mystery to scientists. Whilst there have been a handful of studies that have burned very small quantities of tropical peat in laboratories, no one has yet managed to make field measurements of the emissions from tropical peatland fires… until now.

This August, Dr Thomas Smith travelled to Peninsula Malaysia in search of peat fires with the intention of making the first field measurements of the smoke. Using satellite hotspot detections in the region, Tom was guided to a number of large peatland fires on the east coast of the peninsula, in the state of Pahang. Tom has recorded a number of videos of the peatland fires which you can view here.

Dr Tom Smith gets to the heart of the problem, using his equipment to measure the composition of the smoke from a peatland fire.

Dr Tom Smith gets to the heart of the problem, using his equipment to measure the composition of the smoke from a peatland fire.

Using a technique called Open-Path Fourier Transform Infrared (OP-FTIR) spectroscopy, where a source of infrared light is passed through the smoke and detected by an infrared spectrometer, Tom was able to sense the absorption signatures of a range of important greenhouse gases and haze-forming compounds, including carbon dioxide, methane, carbon monoxide, ammonia, and hydrogen cyanide. Peat samples were also collected from each of the fire sites to determine the physical and chemical composition of the peat, to investigate any links between peat composition and the resultant fire emissions.

The results of Tom’s work will be presented over the course of the coming months. Further information on the recent spate of fires has been given by the World Resources Institute

Congratulations Prof. Sue Page

Sue Page awardThe UK-TPWG is proud to announce that Sue Page has been awarded the Theodore M. Sperry Award by the Society for Ecological Restoration. Established in 1994, the award is presented to “individuals that have made a significant contribution to the science and/or practice of ecological restoration.” Sue has been committed to studying and conserving tropical peatlands for many years, and we in the UK-TPWG are pleased that she has been honoured in this way. Well done Sue for all the hard work!

European Conference of Tropical (partly peaty) Ecology coming up….

Time to register for the European Conference of Tropical Ecology (the annual meeting of the GTOE), this year to be held in Gottingen, Germany, from 23rd  to 26th February 2016.  Several of the group will be there, with Prof. Sue Page giving a key note talk and Dr Katy Roucoux chairing Session 14 (summary pasted below), which will showcase tropical peatlands.  Abstracts should be submitted by 15th October, and there’s more info about registration, etc. here.

Session 14: Past, present and future of tropical (wetland) ecosystems

Chair: Hermann Behling, Katherine Roucoux, Siria Biagioni
Contact: Hermann.Behling@biologie.uni-goettingen.de

Wetlands and peatlands cover large areas of the tropics, make an important contribution to regional biodiversity, host large below-ground carbon stores, provide valuable ecosystem services, and are a source of natural resources. Our knowledge of these complex ecosystems and their temporal dynamics remains far from complete. The aim of this session is to provide an interdisciplinary forum for researchers working on tropical wetlands and peatlands at a range of different timescales and using a range of different approaches. Ecological research on natural and anthropogenic processes in tropical ecosystems is often focused on present-day states, investigating a time interval in which species live under essentially unchanging ecological and climatic conditions. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that a thorough understanding of present-day ecosystems requires a longer-term perspective. For example, the mechanisms responsible for current trajectories of change in forest community composition; the geographical variation of biodiversity; the process of plant community assembly; the role of ecohydrological self-organization in sustaining peat accumulation; and the extent of early anthropogenic impacts in the tropics, are all topics which would benefit from a fuller understanding of the historical development of ecosystems. A long-term perspective on topics such as the resilience of below-ground carbon storage is also vital if we are to contribute to predicting future scenarios of climatic and environmental change on regional and global scales. The session welcomes contributions from palaeoecology (typically millennial to centennial timescales), modern ecology (present-day and long-term monitoring), and ecosystem modelling (projections of future change), especially where an interdisciplinary approach is taken. Studies using innovative methodologies, for example for integrating spatial and temporal analyses through remote-sensing, will be particularly welcome. Although our primary focus is on wetlands, because lakes and peats provide excellent potential for palaeoecological research, contributions relating to the long-term dynamics of other tropical ecosystems will also be very welcome.