Forest fires and carbon dynamics in the high Andes

The dynamics and carbon implications of fires in the Andes is a three year project that has been running since 2010.

In the Andes, humid Tropical Montane Cloud Forests sit immediately below highly flammable, high altitude dry grasslands (the puna) that have suffered from recurrent anthropogenic fires for millennia with the treeline sitting at approximately 3000 m. This treeline is a zone of ecological and climatic tension: on the one hand, rising temperatures and cloud heights may have a tendency to push the ecotome upwards, encouraging forest expansion into the puna. On the other hand, increased aridity in the puna (driven by rising temperatures and evapotranspiration, and possibly by reducing precipitation), coupled with intensified human pressure, is increasing fire occurrence and penetration into the cloud forest.

This project will conduct the first detailed evaluation of spatial and temporal dynamics of fire at the Andean treeline, and attempt to quantify their implications for carbon emissions. An intensive study region in the southern Peruvian Andes will be done to determine the environmental controls on fire ignition and spread, quantify the carbon emissions and recovery times associated with specific fires. The data obtained will be used to evaluate the potential of remote sensing data to scale up fire emissions to the wider Andean region.

Main activities:
Determine the fire history (spatial and temporal) of the Andean treeline for the period 1990 – 2012 by (i) documenting, mapping and investigating all fires in the period 2009-2012; (ii) using remote sensing imagery, on-ground observations, and local knowledge to construct and map fire history in the region for the period 1990-2008.
Quantify the carbon emissions associated with Andean fires, by (i) installing multiple sample plots to assess carbon stocks in burned and unburned forests; (ii) performing several prescribed fires.
Establish the critical moisture thresholds in humic layers and dead woody biomass that determine flammability and fire spread, performing several humidity – burning experiments in controlled conditions.
Improve regional estimates of carbon emissions from Andean fires, by calibrating several remote sensing fire product for our focal study region.

For further information please contact [Dr. Imma Oliveras](

Where are we working?

Bullet_red - Site Bullet_blue - Plot Bullet_yellow - Field station

Photos and images

Uploaded 6 Feb 2014 by Cécile Girardin. Copyright © 2022.

Congratulations to the GEM team (Chris, Yadvinder & Liana) who co-authored a paper in Nature this week (cover story):

"The paper answers a long-standing question about the net carbon balance of the Amazon forest. It uses aircraft flights throughout the year at four different locations to measure the change in carbon dioxide concentration if air as it passes over the Amazon Basin. The study shows that in wet years and wet seasons the Amazon is a net sink (i.e. absorbs carbon) from the atmosphere, but in dry years and dry seasons it is carbon neutral or a source of carbon. Our main contribution in Oxford was to provide insight from our RAINFOR-GEM intensive monitoring plots across Amazonia, which suggest that the loss of the carbon sink was caused by a reduction in photosynthesis." (Y. Malhi blog, Feb 2014)

Gatti L.V., M. Gloor, J. B. Miller, C. E. Doughty, Y. Malhi, L. G. Domingues, L. S. Basso, A. Martinewski, C. S. C. Correia, V. F. Borges, S. Freitas, R. Braz, L. O. Anderson, H. Rocha, J. Grace, O. L. Phillips & J. Lloyd Drought sensitivity of Amazonian carbon balance revealed by atmospheric measurements, Nature 506, 76–80. Supplementary Info

Download the paper from here:

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