NASA to study impacts of this year’s massive Southern African fires

This year’s Southern African fire season is set to be nearly twice as big as usual, according to a NASA-supported A field experiment studying the impact of the fires on the global climate and on the region’s air quality and ecosystems.

The heavy rains earlier this year which caused extensive flooding in Mozambique, spurred the growth of extra plant biomass, resulting in more plant fuel to burn in this year’s season, according to ecologist Robert Scholes of the South African research organisation CSIR Environmentek and one of the research project’s organisers. “This will be a humdinger of a season,” says Scholes.

According to Scholes, heavy fires followed a similarly wet year in 1994. Fortunately, the grass-fuelled fires burn rapidly and do little damage to mature trees, says Scholes. In Africa, he says, fire is considered less of a disaster and more of a natural and necessary part of healthy ecosystem functioning.

The season runs throughout August and September, reaching its peak this month, and the region is subject to some of the highest levels of biomass burning in the world, according to the NASA researchers. The heaviest burning occurs in the moist subtropical belt that includes Angola, the southern Congo, Zambia, northern Mozambique, and southern Tanzania.

The research is being carried out by SAFARI 2000, the Southern African Regional Science Initiative, which brings together nearly 200 African, US and international scientists in a multidisciplinary research programme aimed at understanding the sustainability of the region’s sensitive and pressured ecosystems. The six week field experiment combines observations from NASA’s Terra and Landsat 7 spacecrafts, NASA’s ER-2 high-altitude research aircraft, and several other aircraft and ground stations.

The research also includes airborne and ground-based scientific instruments to sample the chemistry and measure the thickness of the smoke plumes, map the movements of large plumes, and investigate how smoke and other fine particles affect clouds. The data will be used to improve the ability of new instruments on Terra to monitor fires. Controlled burning in the area will also be timed to coincide with the programme in order to contribute to the research.

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