Global fire size distribution is driven by human impact and climate

Stijn Hantson, Salvador Pueyo, Emilio Chuvieco

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

139 Scopus citations


Aim: In order to understand fire's impacts on vegetation dynamics, it is crucial that the distribution of fire sizes be known. We approached this distribution using a power-law distribution, which derives from self-organized criticality theory (SOC). We compute the global spatial variation in the power-law exponent and determine the main factors that explain its spatial distribution. Location: Global, at 2° grid resolution. Methods: We use satellite-derived MODIS burned-area data (MCD45) to obtain global individual fire size data for 2002-2010, grouped together for each 2° grid. A global map of fire size distribution was produced by plotting the exponent of the power law. The drivers of the spatial trends in fire size distribution, including vegetation productivity, precipitation, population density and net income, were analysed using a generalized additive model (GAM). Results: The power law gave a good fit for 93% of the global 2° grid cells with important fire activity. A global map of the fire size distribution, as approached by the power law shows strong spatial patterns. These are associated both with climatic variables (precipitation and evapotranspiration) and with anthropogenic variables (cropland cover and population density). Main conclusions: Our results indicate that the global fire size distribution changes over gradients of precipitation and aridity, and that it is strongly influenced by human activity. This information is essential for understanding potential changes in fire sizes as a result of climate change and socioeconomic dynamics. The ability to improve SOC fire models by including these human and climatic factors would benefit fire projections as well as fire management and policy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)77-86
Number of pages10
JournalGlobal Ecology and Biogeography
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


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