Researchers show satellite data can reveal fire susceptibility in peatlands

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Published on 1 October 2019

When large areas of carbon-rich soil catch fire, the blaze emits massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and creates a thick haze some residents of Southeast Asia know all too well. In 2015, the haze from peatland fires was fatal, responsible for more than 100,000 premature deaths in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

Because of how they accumulate organic material for long periods of time, undisturbed peatlands are considered one of the most effective natural ecosystems for carbon storage. So large fires come at a huge cost to human health and sustainability.

"Although they only cover 3 percent of the world's land area, peatlands are estimated to contain 21 percent of the world's soil carbon," said Stanford University doctoral candidate Nathan Dadap, lead author on a new study correlating soil moisture with fire vulnerability in peatlands.

In order to understand fire susceptibility in Asian peatlands, where blazes have increased in scale and severity over the past 30 years due to land-use changes, scientists developed a novel approach to measuring soil moisture using a previously underestimated tool: satellite data.

Since tropical peatlands are found in swamps where the ground can be obscured by dense vegetation, it was thought impossible to use satellite data for monitoring soil moisture. By developing an alternative algorithm, Stanford scientists have shown for the first time that analyzing remote sensing data can reveal soil moisture in this region, which can in turn be used to predict fire risk. The research appeared in Environmental Research Letters Sept. 9.

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