Pyrogeography at the AAG Conference

Another major conference is on the horizon – the Association of American Geographers (AAG) meeting which is in Chicago this year. Check #AAG15. Conferences are absolutely critical for multidisciplinary/interdisciplinary research, and I think for just about all research. Science, like many (most?) other professional enterprises, requires discussion. My first AAG was last year in Tampa, and that was a great experience. The atmosphere at the Tampa conference was informal, yet had the intensity associated with presenting a range of results from preliminary to pretty polished to peer-reviewed and published results. I also liked the thematic message from AAG 2014: Research about climate change past, present, and future will benefit from geographical thinking.

Annual firecounts from the NASA MODIS sensor on the Terra satellite.  Nearly 2 million fires happen every year!

Annual firecounts from the NASA MODIS sensor on the Terra satellite. Nearly 2 million fires happen every year!

Geographical thinking, to me, implies a consideration of human-environmental interactions across multiple spatial and temporal scales. Atmospheric sciences, which is my “home” discipline, tends to focus on atmospheric interactions across time and space scales. Fire research has to consider human-climate-fire interactions, and while I tend toward the climate-fire side since it’s closer to my home discipline, I keep hoping to see some new patterns that capture some regularity in human behavior in the world of large-scale global fire activity. Fire is important in understanding past and future carbon cycle dynamics, but also seems to be symbolic of the human impact on our planet. Are humans driving fire? Are they agents that change fire regimes and then in turn respond to the changing regime? Or is climate exerting a longer time scale control on fire activity that is above and beyond human control? Many interesting questions emerge from questions about fire drivers at seemingly every spatiotemporal scale, and throughout disciplines that could be aligned with geography.

AAG 2015 will include a full day talks about fire on our planet, or pyrogeography. I think pyrogeography is a great term that encapsulates my research. So Earth Day 2015 for me will be at the AAG Pyrogeography Session. I worked with several different types of researchers studying pyrogeography to bring data, modeling, and cultural expertise together for what is now 25 talks on Wednesday April 22. 8am to 7pm.

Pyrogeography Sessions at AAG
8:00 AM – 9:40 AM 2101 Pyrogeography I: Fire Histories 1
10:00 AM – 11:40 AM 2201 Pyrogeography II: Fire Histories 2
11:40 AM – 1:20 PM Lunch
1:20 PM – 3:00 PM 2401 Pyrogeography III: Fire Drivers
3:20 PM – 5:00 PM 2501 Pyrogeography IV: Fire Case Studies
5:20 PM – 7:00 PM 2601 Pyrogeography V: West African Fires

My talk will focus on how global fire modeling – a framework to simulate the biogeophysical processes driving fire activity – contributes to the discussion, and how it can advance the discussion so that we can better test hypotheses about human-climate-fire interactions. I’ve been closely reviewing some recent (peer-reviewed, published) work by scientists working on fire modeling to prepare for my talk. One of my current favorite visualizations of how human activities introduce big challenges in fire modeling is from a paper by Pfeiffer, Spessa, and Kaplan that shows that the biggest discrepancies between complex fire modeling and satellite data (like above) are in parts of the world most impacted by humans.

Lighter colors indicate that regions with larger discrepancies from observations are in areas impacted most by humans.  Are humans agents in fire patterns?  Are they responsive?

Lighter colors indicate that regions with larger discrepancies from observations are in areas impacted most by humans.

My colleague, Sam Rabin, will present work we’ve been finalizing over the last 3 months to better understand how satellite data can be used to unpack fire signals into component parts such as cropland and pasture fires. Our research has a lot of interesting implications about how widespread/important pasture fires might be. Not coincidentally, pasture and cropland maps like the one below from our 2012 paper, show that human impact and cultivated land are similar. There is 148 million square kilometers of land on Earth, 100 million square kilometers is vegetated, and 50 million square kilometers is cultivated! HALF of all arable land is cultivated! By inference, we need to know more about pasture and cropland fire practices.
Distribution of agriculture, cropland, and pasture.  Half of all arable land is currently cultivated.

Distribution of agriculture, cropland, and pasture.

About Brian Magi

Associate Professor, Department of Geography and Earth Sciences
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