Seasonal patterns in biomass smoke pollution and the mid 20th-century transition from Aboriginal to European fire management in northern Australia


*Correspondence: David Bowman, School for Environmental Research, Charles Darwin University, Darwin, NT 0909, Australia. E-mail:


Aim  Globally, most landscape burning occurs in the tropical savanna biome, where fire is a characteristic of the annual dry season. In northern Australia there is uncertainty about how the frequency and timing of dry season fires have changed in the transition from Aboriginal to European fire management.

Location  In the tropical eucalypt savannas that surround the city of Darwin in the northwest of the Northern Territory of Australia.

Methods  Our study had three parts: (1) we developed a predictive statistical model of mean mass (µg) of particulates 10 µm or less per cubic metre of air (PM10) using visibility and other meteorological data in Darwin during the dry seasons of 2000 and 2004; (2) we tested the model and its application to the broader air shed by (a) matching the prediction of this model to PM10 measurements made in Darwin in 2005, (b) matching the predictions to independent measurements at two locations 20 km to the north and south of Darwin and (c) matching peaks in PM10 to known major fire events in the region (2000–01 dry seasons); and (3) we used the model to explore changes in air quality over the last 50 years, a period that spans the transition from Aboriginal to European land management.

Results  We demonstrated that visibility data can be used reliably as a proxy for biomass burning across the largely uncleared tropical savannas inland of Darwin. Validations using independent measurements demonstrated that our predictive model was robust, and geographically and temporally representative of the regional airshed. We used the model to hindcast and found that seasonal air quality has changed since 1955, with a trend to increasing PM10 concentrations in the early dry season.

Main conclusions  The results suggest that the transition from Aboriginal to European land management has been associated with an increase in fire activity in the early months of the dry season.