Global carbon emissions from fires are difficult to quantify and have the potential to influence interannual variability and long-term trends in atmospheric CO2 concentrations. We used 4 years of Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) Visible and Infrared Scanner (VIRS) satellite data and a biogeochemical model to assess spatial and temporal variability of carbon emissions from tropical fires. The TRMM satellite data extended between 38°N and 38°S and covered the period from 1998 to 2001. A relationship between TRMM fire counts and burned area was derived using estimates of burned area from other satellite fire products in Africa and Australia and reported burned areas from the United States. We modified the Carnegie-Ames-Stanford-Approach (CASA) biogeochemical model to account for both direct combustion losses and the decomposition from fire-induced mortality, using both TRMM and Sea-viewing Wide Field of view Sensor (SeaWiFS) satellite data as model drivers. Over the 1998–2001 period, we estimated that the sum of carbon emissions from tropical fires and fuel wood use was 2.6 Pg C yr−1. An additional flux of 1.2 Pg C yr−1 was released indirectly, as a result of decomposition of vegetation killed by fire but not combusted. The sum of direct and indirect carbon losses from fires represented 9% of tropical and subtropical net primary production (NPP). We found that including fire processes in the tropics substantially alters the seasonal cycle of net biome production by shifting carbon losses to months with low soil moisture and low rates of soil microbial respiration. Consequently, accounting for fires increases growing season net flux by ∼12% between 38°N and 38°S, with the greatest effect occurring in highly productive savanna regions.
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