Human and climate connections with fire activity

Last week, I got to revisit my research in an informal UNC Charlotte CAGIS Seminar amidst the teaching responsibilities that swarm in on me during the academic year. This forced me to set aside some time to think about research, and also to prepare for an upcoming talk this Friday by an ecological anthropologist named Dr. Michael Coughlan (see below for more, or read his articles here and here). One of my research interests is studying the role that humans and climate play in determining the spatiotemporal patterns of fire activity.hobart-tasmania-ian-stewart-oct-2006 Five years ago, I wouldn’t have imagined that this research problem would be so difficult to formulate and tackle in an incremental way. My qualitative assessment is that there are some very subtle differences (and therefore difficult to disentangle) between both humans and climate as driving forces in pyrogeography. The subtlety is hard to manage because (I think) that we innately believe that humans and fire are related. Surely, that innate belief should emerge burning-sugar-cane in some form from an examination of the appropriate data, right?? My first realization that this was a challenging problem was when I was working on designing a global fire model. Humans – specifically the burning of cropland and pasture – were not following the “rules”. The physical conditions best suited to a fire often did not line up with the patterns of fire. We wrote a paper for Biogeosciences that touched on these ideas (PDF), and we’ll present updates at AGU (PDF of Abstract). How do we address this problem? I have been working with paleofire scientists (for an example of that work, read a recent Quaternary Science Review paper by Dr. Jenn Marlon (a scientist at Yale U.) and colleagues here: PDF) and my colleagues and I are working on getting a handle on defining roles and research.

In the meantime, I also invited an ecological anthropologist named Dr. Michael Coughlan to speak in our department Speaker Series. Michael and I met briefly at a fire workshop a few years ago (PDF of meeting report). He has a few recent publications that help push at, or at least explore, the boundaries of disciplinarity in fire research that we gravitate towards because of our respective intellectual training (“do what you do best”). The first publication is about linking humans and fire through what Michael and his co-author call a transdisciplinary approach (PDF of that article). In that paper, the authors argue the following:

We argue that all extant fire regimes, in a sense, are anthropogenic and understandings of human agency, knowledge and the history of social systems are essential for characterising contemporary and historical fire ecology

Whenever you see the word “all”, you know the authors are about to say something that probably will be met with skepticism! But Coughlan and Petty support their thesis with case studies (evidence) and the fact that fire research – like my own – seeks out functional dependencies of fire on amazon-deforestation-greenpeacerelatively-easy-to-define physical variables (like population, temperature) rather than framing the problem in a more social/human context. Humans, in essence, use fire for cultural and practical reasons that may be related to the landscape they are in. Fire modeling certainly does not explicitly account for this human-landscape connection.

Another paper Michael published is in a journal I have never picked up before called the Journal of Ethnobiology (speaks to the massive interdisciplinarity needed to study fires, I guess!). The article is at this link as a PDF. In here, he presents the concept of “landscape memory” and how this relates to fire. This derives from the field work he did for his PhD in the Pyranees.

So, this Friday (Nov 15 2013), Dr Coughlan will talk about “Fire Use, Human Institutions, and Landscape: Ecology of an Agropastoral Fire Regime in the French Pyrenees” which derives from his recently-completed PhD research. I posted the following text to the CLAS-Exchange posting board:

Dr. Michael Coughlan will speak on “Ecology of an Agropastoral Fire Regime in the French Pyrenees” on November 15, 2013 at noon in McEniry 116.

Coughlan is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Georgia Athens in the Department of Anthropology. His research interests include historical ecology, economic anthropology, environmental justice, and emerging trans-disciplinary socioecological systems approaches.

He is currently focused on researching the links between fire ecology, agro-pastoral livelihoods, and cultural landscapes, and is interested in integrating ethnographic, archaeological, geospatial, and paleoecological theory and methods. From an applied perspective, Coughlan is interested in contributing to conservation strategies that promote both cultural and ecological diversity and sustainability. Coughlan will present the seminar as part of the Geography and Earth Sciences Department Speaker Series, and he will be hosted by GES faculty member Brian Magi. More information on Coughlan is available on his website.

Please join us.

About Brian Magi

Associate Professor, Department of Geography and Earth Sciences
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