Fire: Hero or Villain (Sept. 2015)

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The word “fire” is synonymous only to “destruction” to most people with limited knowledge on the role fire plays in natural ecosystems, which includes me. Until recently, I could not have believed that fire is as relevant as the air we breathe until I started my PhD in Ecology. Considering my background in Microbiology and Marine biology it is only by reading journal articles on fire have I begun to understand the important of fire. What motivated me to take up the PhD position was partly because of my biased mind against fire because I’ve never seen anything good about fire – and here I am presented with a very good opportunity to understand the vital role fire plays in the terrestrial ecosystems. Fire is a natural process that accompanies nature, fire plays a pivotal role in the regeneration, evolution and diversification of many plant species. For example, results from fossil charcoal records shows that fire started after the appearance of terrestrial plants in the Silurian (420 million years ago (Ma)). The perturbation of terrestrial ecosystems by humans has altered the functions of fire in the ecosystem, which has led to the disturbance of the terrestrial biosphere These anomalies in fire regimes have altered carbon stored in vegetation and soil, resulting in the modified releases of trace gasses and aerosols, including CO2, CO, CH4, NOx and black carbon. After years of studying fire regimes we are yet to fully comprehend and understand fire patterns and behavior around the globe. The lack of sufficient knowledge on causes and effects of fire has led to great economic losses in billions of dollars due to increases in uncontrollable fires, regardless of the national fire-fighting capacity or management tactics.

The analysis of historical data and fire records shows that climate and humans are the major drivers of fire occurrence and behavior. This has necessitated the need to understand past fire and climate events in other to predict future fire behaviors. The use of sediments, soil charcoal and tree-rings have helped in understanding the past fire regime and it can also be a way in understanding possible future fire conditions. Recently, satellites have been used on a global scale to understand fire but they are restricted to burnt areas has observed by these satellites (i.e. using remote sensing). This is of great concern because fire is multidimensional, and focusing on a single factor undermined it importance in the Earth system. In recent studies, researchers have tried to reconstruct previous fire events that occurred millions of years ago in other to understand the impact of climate change and humans on wildfire regime. The results obtained shows that there was decline from AD to ~1750, before a sharp increase between 1750 and 1870. The rise was attributed to the increase of human influences e.g. rise in population and change in anthropogenic land use. The use of paleoecological data are thus essential in understanding past fire regime.

Results from this studies and model simulation from other research has shown that anthropogenic climate change will led to increase in fire activity. The dynamic nature of the terrestrial ecosystem has been a major driving force in the development of global terrestrial biogeography and biogeochemistry models in the 1980s, in other to better understand and quantify ecosystem has a major player in Earth system. This has led to the development of different types of model to study fire dynamics. The majority of the models developed are coupled with the Dynamic global vegetation model. Examples of available fire models are the MC-Fire, Spread and Intensity (SPITFIRE), LPJ-LMfire (v1.0), Land surface and Processes and exchanges (LPX) etc. Model simulations and paleoecological data are the future to understanding and recognizing fire as an integral part of human ecosystem.

Today, Bozeman is surrounded by wildfires going on in Washington, Idaho and Montana, and the smoke is all over town and inside. Getting a paleo perspective on fire is important for understanding how climate change and land management have caused these fires to occur.


Gilbert Ogunkoya began his PhD in August 2015 in the Ecosystem Dynamics Lab in the Department of Ecology at Montana State University, Bozeman. His work investigates fire dynamics in South America during the Holocene using ecosystem modeling and paleoecological data. Gilbert is funded by the NSF Geography and Spatial Sciences Program (#1461590) and working with Dr. Ben Poulter, Dr. Cathy Whitlock, and Dr. Jed Kaplan.


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