Dubinin, M, Potapov, P, Lushchekina, A, Radeloff, VC (2010). Reconstructing long time series of burned areas in arid grasslands of southern Russia by satellite remote sensing. REMOTE SENSING OF ENVIRONMENT, 114(8), 1638-1648.
Fire is an important natural disturbance process in many ecosystems, but humans can irrevocably change natural fire regimes. Quantifying long-term change in fire regimes is important to understand the driving forces of changes in fire dynamics, and the implications of fire regime changes for ecosystem ecology. However, assessing fire regime changes is challenging, especially in grasslands because of high intra- and inter-annual variation of the vegetation and temporally sparse satellite data in many regions of the world. The breakdown of the Soviet Union in 1991 caused substantial socioeconomic changes and a decrease in grazing pressure in Russia's arid grasslands, but how this affected grassland fires is unknown. Our research goal was to assess annual burned area in the grasslands of southern Russia before and after the breakdown. Our study area covers 19,000 km(2) in the Republic of Kalmykia in southern Russia in the arid grasslands of the Caspian plains. We estimated annual burned area from 1985 to 2007 by classifying AVHRR data using decision tree algorithm, and validated the results with RESURS, Landsat and MODIS data. Our results showed a substantial increase in burned area, from almost none in the 1980s to more than 20% of the total study area burned in both 2006 and 2007. Burned area started to increase around 1998 and has continued to increase. albeit with high fluctuations among years. We suggest that it took several years after livestock numbers decreased in the beginning of the 1990s for vegetation to recover, to build up enough fuel, and to reach a threshold of connectivity that could sustain large fires. Our burned area detection algorithm was effective, and captured burned areas even with incomplete annual AVHRR data. Validation results showed 68% producer's and 56% user's accuracy. Lack of frequent AVHRR data is a common problem and our burned area detection approach may also be suitable in other parts of the world with comparable ecosystems and similar AVHRR data limitations. In our case, AVHRR data were the only satellite imagery available far enough back in time to reveal marked increases in fire regimes in southern Russia before and after the breakdown of the Soviet Union. (C) 2010 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.