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Theses Doctoral

Public Health Impacts from Fires in Tropical Landscapes

Marlier, Miriam E.

Fires are the primary method of deforestation and agricultural management in the tropics, but associated emissions such as aerosols, ozone, and carbon monoxide can have negative impacts on ecosystems, climate, and public health. Recent advances in satellite monitoring of fire activity, including using thermal anomalies for active fire detections and burn scar mapping of post-fire effects, have offered an unprecedented level of detail in understanding the magnitude and extent of fire activity. This dissertation aims to quantify the human health impact across populations in tropical regions by determining which areas are the most susceptible to transported fire emissions and how this exposure varies over time. The following chapters can be used to highlight critical conservation regions, not only for conserving ecosystems for biodiversity and climate benefits, but also for protecting public health. To address how fire emissions can affect regional populations, satellite observations of fire activity are combined with models of how tropical fire emissions are transported in the atmosphere. Satellites provide two primary pieces of information for this approach: 1) measurements of the distribution and magnitude of fire activity, and 2) categorization of fire types (such as agricultural burning or deforestation) by overlaying observed fire patterns on land use maps. Atmospheric models perform the crucial step of simulating how emissions evolve and where they are transported after release into the atmosphere. The following dissertation chapters are linked through exploration of fire emissions impacts from continental to local scales, including implementing fire emissions inventories into atmospheric models, quantifying population exposure to fire activity in Equatorial Asia, and projecting fire emissions associated with various future land use scenarios in Sumatra. Model estimates of aerosol concentrations are more influenced than trace gases by using finer temporal resolution fire emissions, due to interactions between emissions and modeled meteorology and transport. This in turn can impact air quality estimates by permitting higher peak concentrations. In addition, model results show that population exposure to fire emissions in Equatorial Asia is highly variable over time depending on the phase of the El Niño cycle; strong El Niño years can have fire contributions to fine particulate matter of up to 200 µg/m³ near fire sources, corresponding to 200 additional days per year over the World Health Organization 50 µg/m³ 24-hour fine particulate matter air quality target. These risks are not confined to people living near fire sources, but expose broad regional populations due to the atmospheric transport of emissions. Health impacts also depend on underlying fuel characteristics, with the future magnitude of Equatorial Asian fire emissions estimated to be strongly dependent on the level of protection given to fuel-rich peatswamp forests (contributing 33-48% of future emissions in the absence of protection). Collectively, these chapters emphasize variability in how tropical fire emissions affect regional population exposures to outdoor air pollution, and the need to consider the dependence of this public health effect on different fuel types and year-to-year variations in climate. The results described in this dissertation quantify direct benefits of conservation for people living near fire areas.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Earth and Environmental Sciences
Thesis Advisors
DeFries, Ruth S.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 22, 2014