Understanding fire in tropical savannas

Tropical savannas are Australia's most fire-prone biome, with up to half of many savanna landscapes being burnt each year.

The Challenge

A fire prone landscape

Fire plays a key role in maintaining the open vegetation structure that most savanna plants and animals require. However, there is concern that fire frequency in some areas is too high, and that this is having a negative impact on biodiversity. Savanna fires also have an important influence on greenhouse gas dynamics. They make a significant contribution to the nation’s accountable (non-CO2) emissions through the release of methane and nitrous oxide.

Fire is common place in the tropical savannas

Savannas contain about 30 per cent of Australia's terrestrial carbon stocks, and fire also influences rates of carbon sequestration through its effects on tree growth and survival, litter decomposition and charcoal production.

There is growing national and international interest in reducing the extent and severity of savanna fires for greenhouse gas abatement. This has the potential to transform regional economies in northern Australia, and to provide welcome livelihood opportunities for remote Aboriginal communities. There needs to be an integrated understanding of the effects of different fire management options on greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity values.

Our Response

Groundbreaking fire experiments

CSIRO has been researching fire management in tropical savannas for more than 25 years. This includes establishing one of the world's largest fire experiments in the 1990s at Kapalga in Kakadu National Park, which looked at the effects of different types of fire on biodiversity.

In 2004, CSIRO established the Savanna Burning Experiment at the Territory Wildlife Park, which focuses on the effects of fire frequency and intensity on biodiversity and ecological processes, especially relating to carbon sequestration. Most recently CSIRO and the Tiwi Land Council established the Tiwi Carbon Study, which aims to identify the biophysical and economic potential of fire management for greenhouse gas abatement on the Tiwi Islands.

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