Hundreds of fires burn simultaneously across West Africa as smoke shrouds the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Guinea on January 4, 2011. That same day, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard the Aqua satellite passed overhead, capturing this true-color image.
Bushfires are common in the burning season of West Africa, which runs from October to March. Depending on the ecosystems affected, the population affected and the time of year, the fires can be considered a destructive plague, a useful management tool, or a cultural necessity.
Fires are deliberately set to prepare land for planting, to eliminate pests and disease by burning crop residue, to stimulate natural regeneration of tender grass for grazing, to stimulate the growth of edible tree leaves for human food, to protect homes from wildfire and reptiles, to hunt game, and for ritual ceremonies. Some bushfires are also started by accident, for malicious reasons or by natural means.
Although bushfire can be useful, there are significant negative effects. Burning causes loss of organic matter, drives moisture from the soil, increases soil erosion and thus may result in a drop of productivity of both pasture and cropland. By destroying fire-sensitive flora and the dependent fauna, biodiversity is decreased. Fires also emit greenhouse gases, resulting in air pollution and potentially fueling climate warming.
The countries seen in this image, starting from the west and moving along the coast are: Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo. The non-coastal countries are Mauritania, Mali and Burkina Faso. Mauritania and Liberia traditionally have lower incidence of bushfire than the neighboring countries, and this can be seen in this image. Reasons put forward include lower available biomass and different cultural practices.