Research Article: The Relationship between Particulate Pollution Levels in Australian Cities, Meteorology, and Landscape Fire Activity Detected from MODIS Hotspots

Date Published: October 11, 2012

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Owen F. Price, Grant J. Williamson, Sarah B. Henderson, Fay Johnston, David M. J. S. Bowman, Alex J. Cannon.


Smoke from bushfires is an emerging issue for fire managers because of increasing evidence for its public health effects. Development of forecasting models to predict future pollution levels based on the relationship between bushfire activity and current pollution levels would be a useful management tool. As a first step, we use daily thermal anomalies detected by the MODIS Active Fire Product (referred to as “hotspots”), pollution concentrations, and meteorological data for the years 2002 to 2008, to examine the statistical relationship between fire activity in the landscapes and pollution levels around Perth and Sydney, two large Australian cities. Resultant models were statistically significant, but differed in their goodness of fit and the distance at which the strength of the relationship was strongest. For Sydney, a univariate model for hotspot activity within 100 km explained 24% of variation in pollution levels, and the best model including atmospheric variables explained 56% of variation. For Perth, the best radius was 400 km, explaining only 7% of variation, while the model including atmospheric variables explained 31% of the variation. Pollution was higher when the atmosphere was more stable and in the presence of on-shore winds, whereas there was no effect of wind blowing from the fires toward the pollution monitors. Our analysis shows there is a good prospect for developing region-specific forecasting tools combining hotspot fire activity with meteorological data.

Partial Text

An increasingly important issue of fire management revolves around the health impacts of smoke pollution. Smoke is a complex mixture of particulate and gaseous pollutants [1] that has been associated with a wide range of adverse health outcomes [2]. Smoke from bushfires can travel vast distances to affect towns and cities far from its original source [3], [4]. Bushfire smoke has been clearly associated with exacerbation of respiratory illnesses, increased respiratory hospital admissions, and visits to emergency departments [5]. The effect of bushfire smoke on other health outcomes such as cardiovascular morbidity and mortality has been less extensively researched. Of six studies into smoke-related particulate-matter mortality, three found an association [6], [7], [8], while associations with cardiovascular disease have rarely been reported [2]. However, the weight of evidence suggests that smoke particles elicit toxicological effects similar to those of particles from urban pollution (eg motor vehicle emmissions) [9], [10], [11], and the association between urban particles and respiratory and cardiovascular morbidity and mortality is well established [12].

During the study period (2002 to 2007) 1845 and 1687 days had both pollution measures and fire hotspots in Sydney and Perth, respectively. In Sydney, the hotspots occurred in a wide arc of forest surrounding the city from north, west, and south (Figure 1a). Major, damaging fires occurred in the 2002/3 and 2006/7 fire seasons. A fire rose diagram for unweighted hotspots (showing the number of hotspots in each 10° compass sector, centred on the pollution monitor) is dominated by the fires that burnt the Australian Alps and Canberra in January 2003 (300–500 km to the south-west of Sydney) (Figure 4a). The distance-weighted fire rose shows a much more even spread of fire directions, with the fires from 2002/3 and 2006/7 prominent, but with fires from land in all directions. In Perth, hotspots were more dispersed than in Sydney and the fires were smaller (Figure 1b). Consequently, the fire roses were similar for the weighted and unweighted distances (Figure 4b). Notice the occurrence of hotspots in the direction of the ocean for Sydney, which is due to the inland position of the pollution monitor.

We have demonstrated that there is a relationship between fire activity detectable from satellites and pollution in urban centres. Moreover, there are windows of spatial and temporal influence of fire activity on pollution. For Sydney, the radius of influence is relatively small (100 km) and the relationship is strong, while for Perth the radius is much larger (400 km) and the relationship is weak. The explanatory power of the models was improved by including weather and pollution history variables, to the extent that more than half of the variance in pollution could be explained for Sydney. The weather relationships revealed higher pollution when the atmosphere was stable, when wind speed was low and when the wind in the upper atmosphere was blowing on-shore. Importantly, wind flow from the fires to the monitor was not present in the models. This is presumably because on-shore winds that trap in-situ pollution in the city basins are more important to the overall level of pollution than winds transporting smoke from bushfires, even if days without fire activity are excluded. This trapping effect is probably why stable air and low wind speed also lead to more pollution.