Spatial and temporal variability of fires in relation to ecosystems, land tenure and rainfall in savannas of northern South America


M. Romero, tel. +44 571 2576639, fax +44 571 2018326, e-mail:


Fire is a predominant factor forcing global terrestrial biomass dynamics, with more than 30% of the land surface showing frequent burning, particularly in the tropics, where it mostly affects savannas ecosystems annually. Savannas, which cover approximately 269 million ha in South America, play a major role in the global carbon cycle. They are affected by increasing human pressures and global climate change. Using satellite data, this study quantifies vegetation burning in the Colombian Llanos savannas for the period 2000–2008, and analyzes how fire spatial pattern, frequency and extent vary with ecosystem type, land tenure and rainfall. On average 2.75±0.5 million ha (24±4.2%) of the savannas burn each year. Burned area is highly variable, with 3.4 million ha burned in 2002–2003 and <1.9 million ha in 2005–2006. However, during the 2000–2008 period near of 3.7 million ha (33.5%) of the savannas never burned. Compared with the average 8–10 years of fire return time for the tropics and subtropics, these savannas burn twice as often. In addition, the average burn size figure for tropical and subtropical grassland savannas (with <5% trees) of 7000 ha (median 5000 ha), is about seven times the average burned patch size we found in our study. Fires predominate in the well-drained high plain savannas, lowest figures occurring along the Andean foothills, in forested areas and in pasture and croplands. Annual proportion burned varies with land tenure, being highest in National Parks. This study is the first complete regional map of fire disturbance in a South American savanna. This detailed regional data provides a unique opportunity for increasing the accuracy of global carbon emission calculations.