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Envisat focuses on carbon-rich peat swamp forest fires

Fires occur often during the dry season on the South East Asian island of Borneo, but it isn't only the forests that burn. Lowland tropical peat swamps are formed from layers of woody debris too waterlogged to fully decompose. Slowly deposited over thousands of years, the carbon-rich peat strata have been known to reach a thickness of up to 20 metres.

By rights these humid peat swamps shouldn't be vulnerable to flame but during the last couple of decades the Indonesian government started draining them for conversion into agricultural land. In an unfortunate side effect the dried-up peat swamps are turned into tinderboxes and once a peat fire begins smouldering it is almost impossible to put out.

The El Nino event back in 1997-8 caused an unusually long dry season across South East Asia and encouraged the spread of many thousands of man-made fires across Borneo. A choking haze hung across the region, and ESA-led research later established that
due mainly to burning peat up to 2.5 billion tonnes of climate-changing
carbon was released into the atmosphere, an amount estimated to equal
Europe's entire carbon production for a year.

In 2002 a weak El Nino meant another drier than usual year: thousands of fires were again observed, and haze conditions spread all the way to Singapore. But this time ESA's newest and most advanced environmental satellite was watching from orbit.

"We've made use of Envisat to monitor and analyse this disaster," said Florian Siegert of the University of Munich and the German-based Remote Sensing Solutions GmbH, which carried out a case study on behalf of ESA. "The idea was to investigate the satellite's performance while also obtaining valuable data on an incident with global impact - the second major fire incident in the peat swamps within five years."

Three Envisat instruments were used the Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar (ASAR) could pierce the smoke clouds to provide high-resol
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Contact: Henri Laur
henri.laur@esa.int
39-06-941-80-557
European Space Agency
6-Aug-2003


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