The Rangeland Journal The Rangeland Journal Society
Rangeland ecology and management
RESEARCH ARTICLE

Fire patterns in north Australian savannas: extending the reach of incentives for savanna fire emissions abatement

Peter J. Whitehead A B C , Jeremy Russell-Smith A B and Cameron Yates A

A Darwin Centre for Bushfires Research, Research Institute for Environment and Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University, Darwin, NT 0909, Australia.

B North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance, Charles Darwin University, Darwin, NT 0909, Australia.

C Corresponding author. Email: p.whitehead@internode.on.net

The Rangeland Journal 36(4) 371-388 http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/RJ13129
Submitted: 23 December 2013  Accepted: 29 May 2014   Published: 18 July 2014

Abstract

Anthropogenic fires in Australia’s fire-prone savannas produce up to 3% of the nation’s accountable greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Incentives to improve fire management have been created by a nationally accredited savanna burning emissions abatement methodology applying to 483 000 km2 of relatively high-rainfall (>1000 mm p.a.) regions. Drawing on 15 years of fire mapping, this paper assesses appropriate biophysical boundaries for a savanna burning methodology extended to cover lower-rainfall regions. We examine a large random sample of points with at least 300 mm of annual rainfall, to show that: (a) relative fire frequencies (percentage of years with fire) decline from 33.3% in higher-rainfall regions (>1000 mm) to straddling ~10% in the range 300–700 mm; (b) there are no marked discontinuities in fire frequency or fire seasonality down the rainfall gradient; (c) at all annual rainfalls, fire frequency is higher when rainfall is more strongly seasonal (very low rainfall in the driest quarter); (d) below 500 mm fire regimes are particularly variable and a large proportion of sampled sites had no fire over the study period; (e) fire is more likely to occur later in the fire season (generating relatively higher emissions) in the 600–700-mm annual rainfall band than in other parts of the rainfall gradient; (f) woodland savannas are most common above and predominantly grassland systems are more common below ~600-mm annual rainfall. We propose that development of a complementary lower-rainfall savanna burning methodology apply to regions between 600 and 1000-mm annual rainfall and ≤15 mm of rainfall in the driest quarter, adding an area more than 1.5 times the existing methodology’s coverage. Given greater variability in biophysical influences on fire regimes and observed levels of fire frequency within this lower-rainfall domain, we suggest that criteria for determining baseline (pre-project) periods require estimates of mean annual emissions equivalent in precision to the project on which the higher-rainfall methodology was based.

Additional keywords: burning, carbon markets, emissions abatement, fire management, methane, nitrous oxide, non-CO2 gases, rainfall, savanna fire.


References

Anon. (2010). ‘The Australian Land Use and Management (ALUM) Classification Version 7, May 2010.’ (Bureau of Resource Sciences: Canberra.) Available at: http://adl.brs.gov.au/landuse/docs/ALUM_Classification_V7_May_2010_detailed.pdf (accessed April 2013).

Australian Government (2014). ‘Emissions Reduction Fund White Paper.’ (Commonwealth of Australia: Canberra.) Available at: www.environment.gov.au/resource/emissions-reduction-fund-white-paper (accessed April 2014).

Bayon, R., Hawn. A., and Hamilton, K. (2006). ‘Voluntary Carbon Markets: An International Business Guide, What They Are and How They Work.’ (Earthscan: London.)

Burgess, C. P., Johnston, F. J., Bowman, D. M. J. S., and Whitehead, P. J. (2005). Healthy land: healthy people? Exploring the health benefits of Indigenous Land Management. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health 29, 117–122.
Healthy land: healthy people? Exploring the health benefits of Indigenous Land Management.CrossRef | 1:STN:280:DC%2BD2M3nt12gsQ%3D%3D&md5=3ca31fd57f9c54283cfab64f464ca378CAS | 15915614PubMed | open url image1

Burnham, K. P., and Anderson, D. R. (2002). ‘Model Selection and Multimodel Inference: A Practical Information Theoretic Approach.’ 2nd edn. (Springer-Verlag: New York.)

Cook, G. D., Liedloff, A. C., Eager, R. W., Chen, X., Williams, R. J., O’Grady, A. P., and Hutley, L. B. (2005). The estimation of carbon budgets of frequently burnt tree stands in savannas of northern Australia, using allometric and isotopic discrimination. Australian Journal of Botany 53, 621–630.
The estimation of carbon budgets of frequently burnt tree stands in savannas of northern Australia, using allometric and isotopic discrimination.CrossRef | open url image1

Craig, A. B. (1997). A review of information on the effects of fire in relation to the management of rangelands in the Kimberley high-rainfall zone. Tropical Grasslands 31, 161–187. open url image1

Craig, A. B. (1999). Fire management of rangelands in the Kimberley low-rainfall zone: a review. The Rangeland Journal 21, 39–70.
Fire management of rangelands in the Kimberley low-rainfall zone: a review.CrossRef | open url image1

Crawley, M. J. (2007). ‘The R Book.’ (John Wiley and Sons: Chichester, UK.)

CSIRO, Bureau of Meteorology (2007). ‘Climate change in Australia: technical report 2007.’ (CSIRO Publishing:Melbourne.) Available at: www.climatecghangeinaustralia.gov.au/ (accessed January 2013).

DCCEE (2010). ‘National Greenhouse Gas Inventory: Accounting for the Kyoto Target.’ May 2010. (Department of Climate Change & Energy Efficiency: Canberra.) Available at: www.climatechange.gov.au/en/climate-change/emissions.aspx (accessed January 2013).

DCCEE (2013). Carbon Farming (Reduction of Greenhouse Gas Emissions through Early Dry Season Savanna Burning—1.1) Methodology Determination 2013. Available at: www.comlaw.gov.au/Details/F2012L01499 (accessed January 2013).

Dyer, R., Jacklyn, P., Partridge, I., Russell-Smith, J., and Williams, R. J. (Eds) (2001). ‘Savanna Burning: Understanding and Using Fire in Northern Australia.’ (Tropical Savannas Cooperative Research Centre: Darwin, NT.)

Edwards, A. C., and Russell-Smith, J. (2009). Ecological thresholds and the status of fire-sensitive vegetation in western Arnhem Land, northern Australia: implications for management. International Journal of Wildland Fire 18, 127–146.
Ecological thresholds and the status of fire-sensitive vegetation in western Arnhem Land, northern Australia: implications for management.CrossRef | open url image1

Edwards, A. C., Maier, S. W., Hutley, L. B., Williams, R. J., and Russell-Smith, J. (2013). Spectral analysis of fire severity in north Australian tropical savannas. Remote Sensing of Environment 136, 56–65.
Spectral analysis of fire severity in north Australian tropical savannas.CrossRef | open url image1

Ellis, S., Kanowski, P., and Whelan, R. (2004). ‘National Inquiry on Bushfire Mitigation and Management.’ (Commonwealth of Australia: Canberra). Available at: www.coag.gov.au/ (accessed January 2013).

ESCAVI (2003). ‘Australian Vegetation Attribute Manual: National Vegetation Information System, Version 6.’ Executive Committee for Australian Vegetation Information. (Department of the Environment and Heritage: Canberra.)

Felderhof, L., and Gillieson, D. (2006). Comparison of fire patterns and fire frequency in two tropical savanna biomes. Austral Ecology 31, 736–746.
Comparison of fire patterns and fire frequency in two tropical savanna biomes.CrossRef | open url image1

Fisher, R., Vigilante, T., Yates, C. P., and Russell-Smith, J. (2003). Patterns of landscape fire and predicted vegetation response in the North Kimberley region of Western Australia. International Journal of Wildland Fire 12, 369–379.
Patterns of landscape fire and predicted vegetation response in the North Kimberley region of Western Australia.CrossRef | open url image1

Grice, A. C., and Slatter, S. M. (Eds) (1997). ‘Fire for the Management of Northern Australian Pastoral Lands.’ (Meat Research Corporation: Sydney.)

Heckbert, S., Russell-Smith, J., Reeson, A., Davies, J., James, G., and Meyer, C. (2012). Spatially explicit benefit–cost analysis of fire management for greenhouse gas abatement. Austral Ecology 37, 724–732.
Spatially explicit benefit–cost analysis of fire management for greenhouse gas abatement.CrossRef | open url image1

Jones, D. A., and Weymouth, G. (1997). ‘An Australian monthly rainfall data set.’ Technical Report No. 70. (Bureau of Meteorology: Melbourne.)

Jones, D. A., Wang, W., Fawcett, R., and Grant, I. (2006). ‘The generation and delivery of Level-1 historical climate data sets.’ Australian Water Availability Project Milestone Report. (Bureau of Meteorology: Melbourne.)

Meyer, C. P. (2004). ‘Establishing a consistent time-series of greenhouse gas emission estimates from savanna burning in Australia.’ Report to the Australian Greenhouse Office, Canberra. (CSIRO: Melbourne.)

Murphy, B. P., Russell-Smith, J., Watt, F., and Cook, G. D. (2009). Fire management and woody biomass carbon stocks in mesic savannas. In: ‘Culture, Ecology and Economy of Savanna Fire Management in Northern Australia: Rekindling the Wurrk Tradition’. (Eds J. Russell-Smith, P. J. Whitehead, P. Cooke.) pp. 361–394. (CSIRO Publishing: Melbourne.)

Murphy, B. P., Russell-Smith, J., and Prior, L. D. (2010). Frequent fires reduce tree growth in north Australian savannas: implications for tree demography and carbon sequestration. Global Change Biology 16, 331–343.
Frequent fires reduce tree growth in north Australian savannas: implications for tree demography and carbon sequestration.CrossRef | open url image1

Oliver, J. E. (1980). Monthly precipitation distribution: a comparative index. The Professional Geographer 32, 300–309.
Monthly precipitation distribution: a comparative index.CrossRef | open url image1

Preece, N. (2007). Traditional and ecological fires and effects of bushfire laws in north Australian savannas. International Journal of Wildland Fire 16, 378–389.
Traditional and ecological fires and effects of bushfire laws in north Australian savannas.CrossRef | open url image1

R Development Core Team (2012). ‘R: a Language and Environment for Statistical Computing.’ (R Foundation for Statistical Computing: Vienna, Austria.) Available at: www.r-project.org/ (accessed 16 June 2014).

Richards, A. E., Brackin, R. D., Lindsay, D. A. E., and Schmidt, S. (2012). Effect of fire and tree-grass patches on soil nitrogen in Australian tropical savannas. Austral Ecology 37, 668–677.
Effect of fire and tree-grass patches on soil nitrogen in Australian tropical savannas.CrossRef | open url image1

Rossiter, N. A., Setterfield, S. A., Douglas, M. M., and Hutley, L. B. (2003). Testing the grass-fire cycle: alien grass invasion in the tropical savannas of northern Australia. Diversity & Distributions 9, 169–176.
Testing the grass-fire cycle: alien grass invasion in the tropical savannas of northern Australia.CrossRef | open url image1

Russell-Smith, J., Yates, C. P., Edwards, A., Allan, G. E., Cook, G. D., Cooke, P., Craig, R., Heath, B., and Smith, R. (2003a). Contemporary fire regimes of northern Australia: change since Aboriginal occupancy, challenges for sustainable management. International Journal of Wildland Fire 12, 283–297.
Contemporary fire regimes of northern Australia: change since Aboriginal occupancy, challenges for sustainable management.CrossRef | open url image1

Russell-Smith, J., Whitehead, P. J., Cook, G. D., and Hoare, J. L. (2003b). Response of Eucalyptus-dominated savanna to frequent fires: lessons from Munmarlary, 1973–1996. Ecological Monographs 73, 349–375.
Response of Eucalyptus-dominated savanna to frequent fires: lessons from Munmarlary, 1973–1996.CrossRef | open url image1

Russell-Smith, J., Yates, C. P., and Lynch, B. (2006). Fire regimes and soil erosion in north Australian hilly savannas. International Journal of Wildland Fire 15, 551–556.
Fire regimes and soil erosion in north Australian hilly savannas.CrossRef | open url image1

Russell-Smith, J., Yates, C. P., Whitehead, P. J., Smith, R., Craig, R., Allan, G., Thackway, R., Frakes, I., Cridland, S., Meyer, C. P., and Gill, A. M. (2007). Bushfires ‘down under’: patterns and implications of Australian landscape burning. International Journal of Wildland Fire 16, 361–377.
Bushfires ‘down under’: patterns and implications of Australian landscape burning.CrossRef | open url image1

Russell-Smith, J., Edwards, A. C., Woinarski, J. C. Z., McCartney, J., Kerin, S., Winderlich, S., Murphy, B. P., and Watt, F. A. (2009a). Fire and biodiversity monitoring for conservation managers: a 10-year assessment of the ‘Three Parks’ (Kakadu, Litchfield and Nitmiluk) program. In: ‘Culture, Ecology and Economy of Savanna Fire Management in Northern Australia: Rekindling the Wurrk Tradition’. (Eds J. Russell-Smith, P. J. Whitehead, P. M. Cooke.) pp. 257–285. (CSIRO Publishing: Melbourne.)

Russell-Smith, J., Murphy, B. P., Meyer, C. P. (Mick), Cook, G.D., Maier, S., Edwards, A.C., Schatz, J., and Brocklehurst, P. (2009b). Improving estimates of savanna burning emissions for greenhouse accounting in northern Australia: limitations, challenges, applications. International Journal of Wildland Fire 18, 1–18.
Improving estimates of savanna burning emissions for greenhouse accounting in northern Australia: limitations, challenges, applications.CrossRef | 1:CAS:528:DC%2BD1MXhvFaqs74%3D&md5=4c16963f5ec10ba4f6593446d2166324CAS | open url image1

Russell-Smith, J., Whitehead, P. J., and Cooke, P. M. (Eds) (2009c). ‘Culture, Ecology and Economy of Savanna Fire Management in Northern Australia: Rekindling the Wurrk Tradition.’ (CSIRO Publishing: Melbourne.)

Russell-Smith, J., Whitehead, P. J., Cooke, P. M., and Yates, C. P. (2009d). Challenges and opportunities for fire management in fire-prone northern Australia. In: ‘Culture, Ecology and Economy of Savanna Fire Management in Northern Australia: Rekindling the Wurrk Tradition’. (Eds J. Russell-Smith, P. J. Whitehead and P. M. Cooke.) pp. 1–22. (CSIRO Publishing: Melbourne.)

Russell-Smith, J., Yates, C. P., Brock, C., and Westcott, V. (2010). Fire regimes and interval-sensitive vegetation in semi-arid Gregory National Park, Northern Territory. Australian Journal of Botany 58, 300–317. open url image1

Russell-Smith, J., Cook, G. D., Cooke, P. M., Edwards, A. C., Lendrum, M., Meyer, C. P. (Mick), and Whitehead, P. J. (2013). Managing fire regimes in north Australian savannas: applying customary Aboriginal approaches to contemporary global problems. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 11, e55–e63.
Managing fire regimes in north Australian savannas: applying customary Aboriginal approaches to contemporary global problems.CrossRef | open url image1

Townsend, S. A., and Douglas, M. M. (2000). The effect of three fire regimes on stream water quality, water yield and export co-efficients in a tropical savanna (northern Australia). Journal of Hydrology 229, 118–137.
The effect of three fire regimes on stream water quality, water yield and export co-efficients in a tropical savanna (northern Australia).CrossRef | 1:CAS:528:DC%2BD3cXjt1KjtLg%3D&md5=aa1020b0ecc64a70f70ca973daa678a0CAS | open url image1

UNFCCC (1998). ‘Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.’ (United Nations, Bonn, Germany.) Available at: http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/convkp/kpeng.pdf (accessed January 2013).

Walsh, P. D., and Lawler, D. M. (1981). Rainfall seasonality: description, spatial structure and change through time. Weather 36, 201–208.
Rainfall seasonality: description, spatial structure and change through time.CrossRef | open url image1

Werner, P. A. (2012). Growth of juvenile and sapling trees differs with both fire season and understorey type: Trade-offs and transitions out of the fire trap in an Australian savanna. Austral Ecology 37, 644–657.
Growth of juvenile and sapling trees differs with both fire season and understorey type: Trade-offs and transitions out of the fire trap in an Australian savanna.CrossRef | open url image1

Whitehead, P. J., Bowman, D. M. J. S., Preece, N., Fraser, F., and Cooke, P. (2003). Customary use of fire by Indigenous peoples in northern Australia: its contemporary role in savanna management. International Journal of Wildland Fire 12, 415–425.
Customary use of fire by Indigenous peoples in northern Australia: its contemporary role in savanna management.CrossRef | open url image1

Whitehead, P. J., Russell-Smith, J., and Cooke, P. M. (2009). Fire management futures: new northern directions for environmental and socioeconomic benefit. In: ‘Culture, Ecology and Economy of Savanna Fire Management in Northern Australia: Rekindling the Wurrk Tradition’. (Eds J. Russell-Smith, P. J. Whitehead and P. M. Cooke.) pp. 379–394. (CSIRO Publishing: Melbourne.)

Williams, R. J., Griffiths, A. D., and Allan, G. E. (2002). Fire regimes and biodiversity in the wet-dry tropical landscapes of northern Australia. In: ‘Flammable Australia: The Fire Regimes and Biodiversity of a Continent’. (Eds R. A. Bradstock, J. E. Williams and A. M. Gill.) pp. 281–304. (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK.)

Williams, R. J., Woinarski, J. C. Z., and Andersen, A. N. (2003). Fire experiments in northern Australia: contributions to ecological understanding and biodiversity conservation in tropical savannas. International Journal of Wildland Fire 12, 391–402.
Fire experiments in northern Australia: contributions to ecological understanding and biodiversity conservation in tropical savannas.CrossRef | open url image1

Williams, R. J., Barrett, D., Cook, G. D., Gill, A. M., Hutley, L., Liedloff, A., Myers, B., and Woinarski, J. C. Z. (2009). Landscape-scale fire research in northern Australia: delivering multiple benefits in a changing world. In: ‘Culture, Ecology and Economy of Savanna Fire Management in Northern Australia: Rekindling the Wurrk Tradition’. (Eds J. Russell-Smith, P. J. Whitehead and P. M. Cooke.) pp. 181–199. (CSIRO Publishing: Melbourne.)

Woinarski, J. C. Z., Williams, R. J., Price, O., and Rankmore, B. (2005). Landscapes without boundaries: wildlife and their environments in northern Australia. Wildlife Research 32, 377–388.
Landscapes without boundaries: wildlife and their environments in northern Australia.CrossRef | open url image1

Woinarski, J. C. Z., Mackey, B., Nix, H., and Traill, B. (2007). ‘The Nature of Northern Australia: Natural Values, Ecological Processes and Future Prospects.’ (Australian National University Press: Canberra.)

Woinarski, J. C. Z., Russell-Smith, J., Andersen, A. N., and Brennan, K. (2009). Fire management and biodiversity of the western Arnhem Land Plateau. In: ‘Culture, Ecology and Economy of Fire Management in Northern Australia: Rekindling the Wurrk Tradition’. (Eds J. Russell-Smith, P. J. Whitehead and P. M. Cooke.) pp. 201–227. (CSIRO Publishing: Melbourne.)

Yates, C. P., Edwards, A. C., and Russell-Smith, J. (2008). Big fires and their ecological impacts in Australian savannas: size and frequency matters. International Journal of Wildland Fire 17, 768–781.
Big fires and their ecological impacts in Australian savannas: size and frequency matters.CrossRef | open url image1

Yates, C. P., Russell-Smith, J., Murphy, B. P., Desailly, M., Evans, J., Legge, S., Lewis, F., Lynch, D., and Edwards, A. (in press). Fuel accumulation, consumption and fire patchiness in the lower-rainfall savanna region. In: ‘Carbon Accounting and Management in Fire-prone Australian Savannas’. (Eds B. P. Murphy, A. C. Edwards, C. P. Meyer and J. Russell-Smith.) (CSIRO Publishing: Melbourne.)



Export Citation