Pyrogeography – evolution and diversification of fire on Earth

Project: Research

Project Details


Megafires are currently overwhelming human control, despite huge budgets and mature fire-fighting technologies. There is no uniting theory or paradigm concerning the role of biomass burning in Earth science. Indeed, it is uncertain if fire is a critical, biospheric feedback. Consequently landscape fire has not been satisfactorily considered by global change policy and science, although there is mounting evidence that, beyond immediate destruction of life and property, these fires can have long-term deleterious effects on global carbon stocks, biodiversity, regional climates, local economies and human health (via smoke pollution). Therefore, it is time to rethink the place of fire on Earth. We propose to integrate knowledge and perspectives from different disciplines with a stake in biomass burning to collectively address: What is landscape fire? How has fire driven biological evolution? Is Homo sapiens a keystone fire species? What does fire mean for society? And what is the trajectory of the human-fire feedback on Earth systems? Our approach seeks to develop a new transdisciplinary paradigm of ‘pyrogeography’ that is sufficiently encompassing to understand the unique patterns and processes created by recurrent landscape fires that have shaped the biosphere. Specifically, we will (i) identify major omissions of fire's important role in Earth science and management (ii) develop a conceptual framework for accounting for the variation of fire in space, time, and amongst cultures and (iii) develop a set of working hypotheses that will guide future work using both ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ research programs. These outputs will be (i) incorporated into a concurrent NCEAS postdoctoral proposal that seeks to explain global variation in fire frequency observed across ecosystems using statistical modeling (ii) used to guide develop new fire modules for global vegetation and climate models and (iii) formulate experiments to be tested by these global models. A broad understanding of fire’s place in our world is a prerequisite for adaptation to the apparent recent intensification of vegetation-climate-fire feedback loops exacerbated by climate change, introductions of novel growth forms that challenge the evolutionary integrity of entire biomes and rapidly changing land-use patterns. Thus, our framework will enable the formulation of sustainable management of landscape fire appropriate for this period of rapid global environmental change.
Effective start/end date1/04/1031/05/11

UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This project contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-being
  • SDG 13 - Climate Action
  • SDG 15 - Life on Land


  • Fire
  • Climate
  • The human dimension of fire regimes on Earth

    Bowman, D. M. J. S., Balch, J., Artaxo, P., Bond, W. J., Cochrane, M. A., D'Antonio, C. M., Defries, R., Johnston, F. H., Keeley, J. E., Krawchuk, M. A., Kull, C. A., Mack, M., Moritz, M. A., Pyne, S., Roos, C. I., Scott, A. C., Sodhi, N. S. & Swetnam, T. W., 1 Dec 2011, In: Journal of Biogeography. 38, 12, p. 2223-2236 14 p.

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

  • Fire in the Earth System

    Bowman, D. M. J. S., Balch, J. K., Artaxo, P., Bond, W. J., Carlson, J. M., Cochrane, M. A., D'Antonio, C. M., DeFries, R. S., Doyle, J. C., Harrison, S. P., Johnston, F. H., Keeley, J. E., Krawchuk, M. A., Kull, C. A., Marston, J. B., Moritz, M. A., Prentice, I. C., Roos, C. I., Scott, A. C., Swetnam, T. W., & 2 othersvan der Werf, G. R. & Pyne, S. J., 24 Apr 2009, In: Science. 324, 5926, p. 481-484 4 p.

    Research output: Contribution to journalLiterature reviewpeer-review