Newswise — A new study funded by NASA will look at whether climate change on three continents could be affecting the way fire behaves in North America, South America, and Australia.

A National Aeronautics and Space Administration grant of $1,950,135 will fund the three-year project. Researchers will analyze satellite data, as well as historical climate and fire data, for the entire continent of Australia, the lower 48 states in North America, and the Brazilian Amazon region in South America.

Principal investigator Mark Cochrane of South Dakota State University said the idea is that climate change could change the vegetation and hydrology in affected regions, perhaps resulting in more droughts and periods of intense fire behavior.

“We know that as climate changes, the vegetation has to respond. If it’s a short-term change, nothing happens. But if it’s a long-term change where an area gets drier or wetter, the vegetation will grow more, or less, or change in structure,” Cochrane said. “One of the things we’re testing is whether those changes that stress vegetation correlate to more fires, and more severe fires. So we determine where these large fires occurred and see if those correlate to the areas where the vegetation should be changing due to climate changes.”

The study will make use of NASA data from the Landsat and MODIS satellite systems in order to produce the first multicontinent analyses of fire regime shifts due to climate and land use changes — work that will also help researchers to estimate the effectiveness of ongoing mitigation efforts.

“Only through this type of large-scale study that incorporates many of the world’s ecosystems, land management approaches and climates, will it be possible to provide the context necessary to understand how fire is responding to climate change,” Cochrane said. “We will quantify changes in fire danger since 1901 — since 1948 in Amazonia — as well as fire incidence and fire effects in recent decades.”

The research will help people better understand the likelihood for future extreme fire events to occur. That will allow for better planning and mitigation efforts. Without the study, Cochrane said, humans could be increasingly vulnerable to unforeseen and potentially catastrophic shifts in fire regimes as the climate continues to change.

Cochrane, a professor in SDSU’s Geographic Information Science Center of Excellence, or GIScCE, is working with other experts across several disciplines.

His co-investigators are professor David Bowman from the University of Tasmania, Australia; senior researcher Carlos Souza of IMAZON, Brazil; professor David Roy of the GIScCE at South Dakota State University; research forest ecologist Kevin Ryan of the USDA Forest Service, Missoula, Mont.; senior scientist Thomas Loveland of the U.S. Geological Survey in Sioux Falls, S.D.; assistant professor Eugenio Arima of the University of Texas at Austin; senior scientist Jinxun Liu of SGT (contractor to USGS), Sioux Falls, S.D.; and professor Michael Wimberly of the GIScCE at South Dakota State University.