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The human dimension of fire regimes on Earth

journal contribution
posted on 2023-05-17, 07:34 authored by David BowmanDavid Bowman, Balch, J, Artaxo, P, Bond, WJ, Cochrane, MA, D'Antonio, CM, DeFries, R, Fay JohnstonFay Johnston, Keeley, JE, Krawchuk, MA, Kull, CA, Mack, M, Moritz, MA, Pyne, S, Roos, CI, Scott, AC, Sodhi, NS, Swetnam, TW
Humans and their ancestors are unique in being the only fire-making species, yet ‘natural’ (i.e. independent of humans) fires have a much more ancient, geological history on Earth. Natural fires have influenced biological evolution and global biogeochemical cycles, making fire integral to the functioning of some biomes. Globally, debate rages about the impact on ecosystems of prehistoric human-set fires, with views ranging from catastrophic to negligible. Understanding of the diversity of human fire regimes on Earth in the past, present and future remains rudimentary. It remains uncertain how humans have caused a departure from ‘natural’ background levels that vary with climate change. Available evidence shows that modern humans can increase or decrease background levels of natural fire activity by clearing forests, promoting grazing, dispersing plants, altering ignition patterns and actively suppressing fires, thereby causing substantial ecosystem changes and loss of biodiversity. Some of these contemporary fire regimes cause substantial economic disruptions due to destruction of infrastructure, degradation of ecosystem services, loss of life, and smoke-related health effects. These episodic disasters help frame negative public attitudes towards landscape fires, despite the need for burning to sustain some ecosystems. Greenhouse gas-induced warming and changes in the hydrological cycle may increase the occurrence of large, severe fires with potentially significant feedbacks to the Earth system. Improved understanding of human fire regimes demands: (1) better data on past and current human influences on fire regimes to enable global comparative analyses, (2) greater understanding of different cultural traditions of landscape burning and their positive and negative social, economic and ecological effects, and (3) more realistic representations of anthropogenic fire in global vegetation and climate change models. We provide an historical framework to promote understanding of the development and diversification of fire regimes from the pre-human period, human domestication of fire, and subsequent transition from subsistence agricultural to industrial economies. All of these phases still occur on Earth, providing opportunities for comparative research.


Publication title

Journal of Biogeography










School of Natural Sciences


Blackwell Publishing Ltd

Place of publication

9600 Garsington Rd, Oxford, England, Oxon, Ox4 2Dg

Rights statement

Copyright 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

Repository Status

  • Restricted

Socio-economic Objectives

Evaluation, allocation, and impacts of land use

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