Using Satellites to Monitor Open Burning

by Jessica McCarty - 10 July, 2017
Earth observation satellite data is being used to map fires and calculate related black carbon emissions in the Andean and Himalayan regions

Glaciers in the Himalayas and Andes are the main water sources for over 1.5 billion people in South and East Asia[1] and 77 million people in South America[2]. Due to climate change and deposition of short-lived climate pollutants like black carbon (BC), these glaciers are melting at unprecedented rates. This melting has implications for freshwater sources, extreme flooding, water conflicts, and food security for much of South Asia and South America.[3] 

Black Carbon Emissions from Open Burning  

Open burning is the single largest source of BC emissions globally, approximately 2700 Gg or 36% of BC emissions[4], with agricultural fires comprising 10-20% of all fires. Biomass burning will likely cause a 0.4oC temperature increase in the next 20 years of global climate change[5]. Short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs), including methane (CH4), BC, and tropospheric ozone (O3), have atmospheric lifetimes ranging from a few days to several weeks and as much as 12 years for CH4, which means their abatement can have an almost immediate and lasting positive impact on climate change and air quality[6].

Burning of agricultural fields and wildland fires are sources of black carbon deposition on these glaciers[7]. For example, fire is commonly used across South Asia to support agricultural and pasture management, specifically to remove excess crop residue and other agricultural waste, but these fires can spread into wildland areas during the dry season. These wildland fires in Nepal tend to occur between December and May, with a peak in April[8]. Agricultural burning in Nepal occurs in March through June, with a large amount of burning also along the border in India at the same time[9]. Burning is widespread throughout southern and central Nepal in the Teria and Hill Districts, with the same rice-wheat cropping system as the Punjab regions and much of the Indo-Gangetic Plain.

There is also an opportunity for the fire science and wildland fire management community around the world to assist and advocate for climate-smart agriculture techniques that reduce and/or eliminate unnecessary open burning in agroecosystems. For example, integrating prescribed burning of neighboring agroecosystems with wildland fire management, especially given increased wildland fire risk in a warming climate and severe air pollution events caused by prescribed burning, like occurred in New Delhi, India in Fall 2016[10] [11]. Conservation International has begun to develop community-based and community-guided systems for doing this via their Firecast system[12]. Future air pollution management of wildland fires will have to include planning of prescribed fire in agroecosystems.

Open agricultural burning in India
True colour image and aerosol optical thickness (AOT) showing smoke depth from open agricultural burning in India in fall 2016, NPP VIIRS satellite data, NOAA View (

What Can We Do?

Introducing climate-smart agriculture techniques, including no-till and soil restoration, via sponsored training, equipment, and model farms will eliminate prescribed open burning while increasing productivity and soil quality. Co-benefits of no-burn climate-smart agriculture include reduction of irrigation needs, improved air quality and public health, improved soil quality, increased yields, and capacity building via training, technology, and equipment. This Coalition funded project will target two implementation projects in Junín Region, Peru and Punjab State, India. Co-funding is being sought to expand to other implementation projects in Ecuador, Bolivia, Nepal, and Pakistan. 

Climate-smart agriculture
The suite of climate-smart agriculture techniques and the co-benefits associated, including eliminating crop residue burning that reduces SLCPs near the Andean and Himalayan glaciers.

Why Satellites?

Earth observation (EO) satellite data available from the U.S. National Aeronatics and Space Administration (NASA) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is being used to map all fires and to calculate related BC emissions in the Andean and Himalayan regions. Specifically, active fire and burned area data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) and the Visible Infrared Imaging Spectrometer Suite (VIIRS) is used to map all fires greater than 30m2.

Historic fire and fire emission records have been constructed for the Andean and Himalayan regions, with finer-scale assessments of the farm implementation regions, going back to 2003. Going forward, present-day and future (2017-2020) fires and emissions will be mapped and recorded to compare to the historical record. This will allow us to have an independent data and methodology for monitoring and assessing how effective the no-burn climate-smart agriculture intervention strategies are at the farm-, village-, region-, and country-level. We can then compare this with our ground-based observations from regional partners for further verification.

Ultimately, we will be able to determine if the climate-smart intervention strategies have reduced or eliminated open burning in these glacier-adjacent agricultural regions. This satellite-based monitoring method is open-source, easily replicable, and free- to low-cost. All maps and emission databases are availalable online through cooperation with International Cryosphere Climate Initiative and on the project’s Twitter account in both English and Spanish. 

VIIRS active fires detected in croplands in Peru during the winter June-August burning season, example from August 2016.
VIIRS active fires detected in croplands in Nepal during winter/spring January-May burning season, example from April 2017.

Jessica McCarty is Assistant Professor of Geography at Miami University where she collaborates on demonstration projects. She has a PhD in Geography from University of Maryland at College Park. Her expertise includes application of remote sensing, GIS and data mining to agriculture, climate-smart agriculture techniques, food security, fire, air quality, GHG emissions, black carbon and SLCPs, climate, land-use/land-cover change, app development, and UAVs.