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Understanding and living with fire on our planet

Wildfire occurs across much of our world every year and is Earth’s greatest natural agent of landscape disturbance. Landscape fires have huge impacts on habitats and communities, plus contribute to global climate change and poor air quality, but are also needed to keep some ecosystems healthy. King's is part of a major new research centre helping us better understand the reality of living with fire now and in the future.

Fires occur in most vegetated environments on Earth, and it is said that an area at least as large as India burns on average most years. However, recent research suggests this is a considerable underestimate, with the true scale in some places now believed many times that previously thought. There is also currently no really accurate picture of the type or amount of 'fuel' that is actually burning in many areas, nor the overall impact that fires in different environments may have.

Wildfires are a complex issue. There are regions like the boreal forest and African savannah that require fire to maintain their ecosystem function and health. In many countries humans also regularly use fire to clear land and maintain agricultural areas, something that has long been part of traditional livelihoods but which in some areas has now been mechanised to occur on an industrial scale.

In other areas fires cause huge devastation, leading to damage and loss of life and property, as has occurred in recent wildfires in Australia, California and the Mediterranean.

Canada forest fire

Global issue

The damaging consequences of fires can be significant beyond their local area as well.  Whilst hundreds of people may die in wildfires in any particular year, early deaths from the air quality impacts of landscape fires more likely number in the hundreds of thousands.

Larger and more longer-lived fires affect not only local air quality, but also that of neighbouring countries, and in terms of long-lived greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, fires can influence the atmosphere of the entire planet.

Tropical peatlands for example contain 'fossil' carbon, formed from plant debris formally held in mostly forest vegetation. This carbon-rich material is now stored in the ground as peat soil, which can be hundreds or even thousands of years old. These peatlands are naturally wet and fire retardant, but when cleared of forest and drained of much of their moisture during attempts to use them as agricultural land they can dry out and the soil itself can burn.

Whilst the majority of climate change is associated with atmospheric carbon dioxide increases related to the burning of oil, coal and gas, along with deforestation fires these tropical peat fires are currently believed to be responsible for something like 15 percent of annual atmospheric carbon dioxide increases. The numbers are uncertain however, and we need to know them more accurately to target policies more effectively.

Programmes such as the United Nations 'Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation' (REDD+) aim to contribute to reducing the rate of atmospheric carbon dioxide increase by helping developing nations reduce these types of CO2 emissions, whilst industries and economies of developed nations in particular ultimately transition to lower fossil fuel use.

We also need to ensure long term climate models are operating as accurately as possible, by including fire, its controls and its feedbacks more accurately within them in order to underpin future policies better as well as to provide a clearer understanding of the role of fires in the Earth system. 

An example of the issues we will tackle is the fact that in many places worldwide there are likely to be very many more 'small' fires than large fires. Satellites can have a hard time detecting these short-lived, smaller burns – but they very likely have some really significant impacts. For example, contributing to some of the major air quality problems we see in cities like Delhi when field burning of wheat stubble and surplus straw occurs in surrounding agricultural areas. – Professor Martin Wooster

To answer these gaps in knowledge, as well as to help us learn how to better live sustainably with fire, the Leverhulme Centre for Wildfires, Environment and Society has been launched with a £10 million investment from the Leverhulme Trust. 

The Centre brings together natural and social scientists in a collaboration between four universities, with Imperial College London and King’s as the primary partners and the University of Reading and Royal Holloway also bringing important, focused expertise. As the centre has funding over the next decade, this enables long-term planning and research that would be difficult to accomplish in a shorter time frame.

Centre Associate Director Professor Martin Wooster leads King's Earth Observation and Wildfire Research Group based in King’s Department of Geography. The Group will use their expertise in satellite, airborne and ground-based remote sensing, alongside a wide variety of field-based measurement techniques, to study landscape fire and smoke composition from satellites orbiting the Earth, from aircraft flying overhead, and from ground-based sensors deployed close or even within the fires themselves.

We need better information to quantify fires and their smoke emissions across the full size range, so we can understand the true magnitude and impact of fire in both natural and human modified environments.– Professor Martin Wooster

Collaborative approach

A key aspect of the new centre is that it brings together academics and researchers from a very wide range of disciplines, including both the natural, geographical and social sciences.

Fire on earth is a natural process, but is now very strongly influenced by human activity -  with people responsible for most fire ignitions and for many changes to landscapes that influence fire behaviour and effects.

Fellow Associate Director is Professor David Demeritt, also in King's Department of Geography. As an expert in environmental policy, risk communication and governance, he will look at risk and resilience in relation to fire. Other colleagues in the Department bring expertise in modelling and understanding the interactions between people, landscapes and environmental processes.

Bringing together expertise across the natural and social sciences, our new Leverhulme Research Center will harness a range of skills, capabilities, data and tools to focus long-term on better understanding the nature and role of wildfire, along with other forms of landscape burning in all its complexity. 

By enhancing this fundamental knowledge, we hope to be able to better quantify, model and understand the current role and impact of fire in the Earth system, as well as forecast how this may change under climate and development pathways.

This will help us make informed decisions that aim to support living sustainably with fire now, and into the future.

Kruger Park fire team
A comprehensive study of fire on earth needs to include both the natural and social sciences if we are to fully appreciate the drivers, impacts, and be able in future to forecast how these may change in the coming years and decades. – Professor Martin Wooster

In this story

Martin Wooster

Martin Wooster

Professor of Earth Observation Science

David Demeritt

David Demeritt

Professor of Geography


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