The fire regime is changing in the U.S. and globally as a function of human-caused climate change and many other disturbances (e.g., land use change, introduction of invasive species, fire ignitions). The U.S. has experienced some of the worst fires on record in recent years.
Earth Lab studies several threads relating to how fire regimes are changing. We study changes in fire season, the proportion of fires that are human (vs. lightning) caused, and the conditions in which fires occur (e.g., fuel moisture, wind speed) across the U.S. One of our recent papers found that humans started 84% of all fires across the U.S. in recent decades (Balch et al. 2017; PNAS).
We also have a research concentration in large and extreme fires and how to better understand the predictors of these events. Other key research areas include: the health and societal effects of fire, how human settlement patterns are changing fire activity, and how fires interact with other disturbances or hazards (e.g., drought, insect infestations, invasive plant species). A recent paper (Fusco et al. 2019; PNAS) studied how invasive plant species are interacting with fire characteristics (e.g., fire occurrence, return interval, and size) in the perpetuation of a grass-fire cycle across the U.S.
In our research we use a variety of data sources including field inventory data, government reports, satellite, airborne, and drone data to answer questions at large spatial scales. We map fires regionally, across the U.S., and globally to understand fire patterns over time, seasonally, and across land covers and vegetation types. We bring computational power and data analytics expertise to answer fire-related research questions through Earth Lab’s Analytics Hub.
In Earth Lab, we have professional staff, postdocs, and students all working collaboratively on research projects related to fire. We also work with external partners from government agencies (e.g., USFS, USGS), NGOs (e.g., TNC), and industry (e.g., Digital Globe, Twitter, Zillow) to collaborate on fire-related projects.
Jennifer K. Balch
Jennifer Balch is the Director of Earth Lab. Her research aims to understand the patterns and processes that underlie disturbance and ecosystem recovery, particularly how shifting fire regimes are reconfiguring tropical forests, encouraging non-native grass invasion, and affecting the global climate.