Marvin Glasser, University of Nebraska at Kearney
Justin Wilkinson, Lockheed Martin, Johnson Space Center
Kamlesh Lulla, NASA, Johnson Space Center

STS026-43-080: This famous photograph from a Space Shuttle mission in 1988 was taken over the Amazon Basin in Brazil near the Bolivian border (lat. 12.5 S, lon. 64 W). Cumulus thunderstorm clouds protrude above a thick, continuous smoke pall covering thousands of square miles. This photograph was featured on the cover of the London Times.

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A Perspective From Astronaut Photography

Purpose: Extensive research utilizing remotely sensed data and other forms of information is being done to assess biomass burning and its environmental effects. This web site is dedicated to providing a perspective on biomass burning using the unique database of photographs provided by 30 years of human space flight.

Perspective: From the perspective of one human lifetime, it is difficult to appreciate the complex and dynamic interactions that occur on longer time scales between the Earth, the atmosphere, the oceans and the biosphere. Geologic processes like erosion and glaciation, changes in the composition and circulation of the atmosphere and the oceans, climatic changes and global modifications in the type and distribution of life forms are generally apparent only on geologic time scales of thousands or even millions of years.

There is a widespread concern, if not consensus, within the scientific community that a burgeoning humanity, with its associated rapid development of technologies and the related voracious appetite for materials and energy, has introduced a new factor into the equation of change. The Earth's global life support systems, including physical and ecological environments, are changing vigorously and rapidly. A major concern about these global changes is that they are change on a time scale orders of magnitude faster than most natural geologic change. The fact that these changes are occurring on an order shorter than a human's lifetime means that they are much more noticeable and that biological and human systems, if adversely affected, will have a much more difficult time adjusting to them.

Many scientists cite the beginning of the Industrial Revolution as the starting point for rapid, human-induced changes. However, human-induced change began its ascent from the first time that our ancestors used fire and tools, human-induced change began its ascent. In fact, fire, as one of our earliest technologies, and the biomass burning associated with it, became the most potent resource for change. Today, as we shall demonstrate here, it has come to have a global impact.

Biomass burning affects all the major systems of the Earth. This includes the ecology of the burned area, not excempting the human component. The soil is affected both directly, through changes due to heating and indirectly, in long-term effects on composition and erosion characteristics. The atmosphere is not only heated but also altered through the addition of several gases and aerosols, including creation of the most intense surface ozone pollution on Earth - in the South Atlantic. The missing vegetation may not regenerate to remove carbon dioxide as before and thus it may further contribute to the greenhouse warming problem. In light of the mounting evidence for the global extent of biomass burning, one of the oldest of societies' technologies has become one of our major modern problems.

The photographs from space, taken by astronauts looking back at Earth and contemplating what is happening to their home planet, provide a uniquely human perspective on biomass burning. It is this perspective we are interested in presenting here.

Biomass Burning Study Team:
Dr. Kamlesh Lulla, NASA, JSC
Prof. Marvin Glasser, University of Nebraska at Kearney
Dr. Justin Wilkinson, Lockheed Martin


STS065-81-007: Space View of Burning in the Northern Territory of Australia. Late winter burning in northern Australia is captured by this color photograph of the extreme northern coastal area that includes the Cobourg Peninsula, as well as Melville and Bathurst Islands. These fires were probably set intentionally to renew pasture under open-canopy woodland. The very dark lowland areas on Melville Island are mangrove woodland. In contrast to some other tropical regions (e.g. Madagascar and Indonesia), here there are no sediment plumes indicating soil erosion.

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STS070-717-027: Bush Fires in Southern Mozambique. Easterly winds from the Mozambique Channel blow the smoke from many large fires in the southern part of this island. Neighboring views show the smoke moving over and around the Chimanimani Mountains, into Zimbabwe on the African plateau. Winter is the dry season in southern Africa and fires are set to hasten the greening of the grass shoots for cattle grazing.

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STS048-71-090: This area of Indonesian Borneo is known as Kalimantan. The smoke from these fires is an indication of the transmigration from densely populated Java and the preparation of land for new agriculture.

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