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Ecology. 2011 Jan;92(1):121-32.

Constraints on global fire activity vary across a resource gradient.

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  • 1Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, 137 Mulford Hall, MC#3114, University of California, Berkeley, California 94720, USA.


We provide an empirical, global test of the varying constraints hypothesis, which predicts systematic heterogeneity in the relative importance of biomass resources to burn and atmospheric conditions suitable to burning (weather/climate) across a spatial gradient of long-term resource availability. Analyses were based on relationships between monthly global wildfire activity, soil moisture, and mid-tropospheric circulation data from 2001 to 2007, synthesized across a gradient of long-term averages in resources (net primary productivity), annual temperature, and terrestrial biome. We demonstrate support for the varying constraints hypothesis, showing that, while key biophysical factors must coincide for wildfires to occur, the relative influence of resources to burn and moisture/weather conditions on fire activity shows predictable spatial patterns. In areas where resources are always available for burning during the fire season, such as subtropical/tropical biomes with mid-high annual long-term net primary productivity, fuel moisture conditions exert their strongest constraint on fire activity. In areas where resources are more limiting or variable, such as deserts, xeric shrublands, or grasslands/savannas, fuel moisture has a diminished constraint on wildfire, and metrics indicating availability of burnable fuels produced during the antecedent wet growing seasons reflect a more pronounced constraint on wildfire. This macro-scaled evidence for spatially varying constraints provides a synthesis with studies performed at local and regional scales, enhances our understanding of fire as a global process, and indicates how sensitivity to future changes in temperature and precipitation may differ across the world.

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