On April 4, 2006, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this image showing numerous fires (marked in red) burning across the Yucatan Peninsula (top center), and the Central American countries to the south: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Although MODIS cannot tell the cause of fires, April is one of the dry-season months in the area, and it is possible that the fires are a mixture of intentional agriculture-related fires and accidental or natural forest fires. Fire is an important ecological process regardless of its cause. Forest biomass, which is roughly half carbon, releases carbon dioxide to the atmosphere when it burns and therefore contributes to climate change. Fire also creates a mosaic of forest patches of different ages and sizes, which in turn creates habitat for other organisms, potentially increasing the overall biological diversity of an area. Without human intervention, forest fires tend to be more frequent and less intense; fire suppression tends to increase the amount of fuel available, thus leading to more catastrophic fires when they do occur. Finding the right mix of protecting habitat as well as human lives and property is a challenge for managers, one that is aided greatly by the near real-time capability of satellite images to monitor and measure fire and its impacts.
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