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      The human dimension of fire regimes on Earth


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          Humans and their ancestors are unique in being a fire-making species, but ‘natural’ (i.e. independent of humans) fires have an ancient, geological history on Earth. Natural fires have influenced biological evolution and global biogeochemical cycles, making fire integral to the functioning of some biomes. Globally, debate rages about the impact on ecosystems of prehistoric human-set fires, with views ranging from catastrophic to negligible. Understanding of the diversity of human fire regimes on Earth in the past, present and future remains rudimentary. It remains uncertain how humans have caused a departure from ‘natural’ background levels that vary with climate change. Available evidence shows that modern humans can increase or decrease background levels of natural fire activity by clearing forests, promoting grazing, dispersing plants, altering ignition patterns and actively suppressing fires, thereby causing substantial ecosystem changes and loss of biodiversity. Some of these contemporary fire regimes cause substantial economic disruptions owing to the destruction of infrastructure, degradation of ecosystem services, loss of life, and smoke-related health effects. These episodic disasters help frame negative public attitudes towards landscape fires, despite the need for burning to sustain some ecosystems. Greenhouse gas-induced warming and changes in the hydrological cycle may increase the occurrence of large, severe fires, with potentially significant feedbacks to the Earth system. Improved understanding of human fire regimes demands: (1) better data on past and current human influences on fire regimes to enable global comparative analyses, (2) a greater understanding of different cultural traditions of landscape burning and their positive and negative social, economic and ecological effects, and (3) more realistic representations of anthropogenic fire in global vegetation and climate change models. We provide an historical framework to promote understanding of the development and diversification of fire regimes, covering the pre-human period, human domestication of fire, and the subsequent transition from subsistence agriculture to industrial economies. All of these phases still occur on Earth, providing opportunities for comparative research.

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          Most cited references103

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          Fire in the Earth system.

          Fire is a worldwide phenomenon that appears in the geological record soon after the appearance of terrestrial plants. Fire influences global ecosystem patterns and processes, including vegetation distribution and structure, the carbon cycle, and climate. Although humans and fire have always coexisted, our capacity to manage fire remains imperfect and may become more difficult in the future as climate change alters fire regimes. This risk is difficult to assess, however, because fires are still poorly represented in global models. Here, we discuss some of the most important issues involved in developing a better understanding of the role of fire in the Earth system.
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            Carbon pools and flux of global forest ecosystems.

            Forest systems cover more than 4.1 x 10(9) hectares of the Earth's land area. Globally, forest vegetation and soils contain about 1146 petagrams of carbon, with approximately 37 percent of this carbon in low-latitude forests, 14 percent in mid-latitudes, and 49 percent at high latitudes. Over two-thirds of the carbon in forest ecosystems is contained in soils and associated peat deposits. In 1990, deforestation in the low latitudes emitted 1.6 +/- 0.4 petagrams of carbon per year, whereas forest area expansion and growth in mid- and high-latitude forest sequestered 0.7 +/- 0.2 petagrams of carbon per year, for a net flux to the atmosphere of 0.9 +/- 0.4 petagrams of carbon per year. Slowing deforestation, combined with an increase in forestation and other management measures to improve forest ecosystem productivity, could conserve or sequester significant quantities of carbon. Future forest carbon cycling trends attributable to losses and regrowth associated with global climate and land-use change are uncertain. Model projections and some results suggest that forests could be carbon sinks or sources in the future.
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              Global Pyrogeography: the Current and Future Distribution of Wildfire

              Climate change is expected to alter the geographic distribution of wildfire, a complex abiotic process that responds to a variety of spatial and environmental gradients. How future climate change may alter global wildfire activity, however, is still largely unknown. As a first step to quantifying potential change in global wildfire, we present a multivariate quantification of environmental drivers for the observed, current distribution of vegetation fires using statistical models of the relationship between fire activity and resources to burn, climate conditions, human influence, and lightning flash rates at a coarse spatiotemporal resolution (100 km, over one decade). We then demonstrate how these statistical models can be used to project future changes in global fire patterns, highlighting regional hotspots of change in fire probabilities under future climate conditions as simulated by a global climate model. Based on current conditions, our results illustrate how the availability of resources to burn and climate conditions conducive to combustion jointly determine why some parts of the world are fire-prone and others are fire-free. In contrast to any expectation that global warming should necessarily result in more fire, we find that regional increases in fire probabilities may be counter-balanced by decreases at other locations, due to the interplay of temperature and precipitation variables. Despite this net balance, our models predict substantial invasion and retreat of fire across large portions of the globe. These changes could have important effects on terrestrial ecosystems since alteration in fire activity may occur quite rapidly, generating ever more complex environmental challenges for species dispersing and adjusting to new climate conditions. Our findings highlight the potential for widespread impacts of climate change on wildfire, suggesting severely altered fire regimes and the need for more explicit inclusion of fire in research on global vegetation-climate change dynamics and conservation planning.

                Author and article information

                J Biogeogr
                Journal of Biogeography
                Blackwell Publishing Ltd (Oxford, UK )
                December 2011
                : 38
                : 12
                : 2223-2236
                [1 ]simpleSchool of Plant Science, Private Bag 55, University of Tasmania Hobart, Tas., Australia
                [2 ]simpleNCEAS 735 State Street, Suite 300simpleUniversity of Santa Barbara Santa Barbara, CA, USA
                [3 ]simpleInstituto de Física, Universidade de São Paulo 1516 Rua do Matão, Travessa R, 187, São Paulo, SP, Brazil
                [4 ]simpleBotany Department, University of Cape Town Rondebosch, South Africa
                [5 ]simpleGeographic Information Science Center of Excellence (GIScCE) South Dakota State University Brookings, SD, USA
                [6 ]simpleEnvironmental Studies Program and Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology, University of California Santa Barbara, CA, USA
                [7 ]simpleEcology, Evolution & Environmental Biology, Columbia University New York, NY, USA
                [8 ]simpleMenzies Research Institute, University of Tasmania Private Bag 23, Hobart, Tas., Australia
                [9 ]simpleUS Geological Survey, Western Ecological Research Center, Sequoia-Kings Canyon Field Station Three Rivers, CA, USA
                [10 ]simpleDepartment of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California Los Angeles, CA, USA
                [11 ]simpleDepartment of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, University of California Berkeley, CA, USA
                [12 ]simpleSchool of Geography and Environmental Science, Monash University Melbourne, Vic., Australia
                [13 ]simpleDepartment of Biology, University of Florida Gainesville, FL, USA
                [14 ]simpleEnvironmental Science, Policy, and Management Department, University of California Berkeley, CA, USA
                [15 ]simpleSchool of Life Sciences, Arizona State University Tempe, AZ, USA
                [16 ]simpleDepartment of Anthropology, Southern Methodist University Dallas, TX, USA
                [17 ]simpleDepartment of Earth Sciences, Royal Holloway University of London Egham, UK
                [18 ]simpleDepartment of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science, National University of Singapore Singapore
                [19 ]simpleLaboratory of Tree-Ring Research, The University of Arizona Tucson, AZ, USA
                Author notes
                *Correspondence: David M.J.S. Bowman, School of Plant Science, Private Bag 55, University of Tasmania, Hobart, Tas. 7001, Australia. E-mail: david.bowman@ 123456utas.edu.au


                Re-use of this article is permitted in accordance with the Terms and Conditions set out at http://wileyonlinelibrary.com/onlineopen#OnlineOpen_Terms.

                © 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

                Re-use of this article is permitted in accordance with the Creative Commons Deed, Attribution 2.5, which does not permit commercial exploitation.


                global environmental change,pyrogeography,prehistoric human impacts,fire and culture,fire regime,fire management,landscape fire,palaeoecology


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