A thick layer of smoke from burning forests covering parts of southeast Asia last summer as captured by a Nasa satellite

Satellite map helps prevent fires in Southeast Asia

A map that uses data from Earth-observing satellites to calculate the risk of fire catching and spreading has been launched to help countries in Southeast Asia ward off damaging blazes.

The Fire Risk Map, developed by Washington-based non-profit Global Forest Watch together with environmental group Conservation International, aims to help governments in countries such as Malaysia and Singapore to better manage risks and be prepared for potential fire outbreaks.

"We expect the Fire Risk Map to help government officials and company land managers to be more proactive about fires," said Susan Minnemeyer, a forest fire expert at Global Forest Watch.

Southeast Asia has massive problems with fires that usually spread from agriculture. Farmers use slash-and-burn practices to clear forest to make space for palm oil plantations. Last year, the situation was so severe that smoke from the blazes caused disruption to air travel and forced schools to close.

While the Fire Risk Map won’t prevent the slash-and-burn agriculture, it can provide authorities with information about temperature, humidity and rainfall - the major risk factors for the fires to get out of control. The drier the conditions, the higher the risk.

The Fire Risk Map is one of the latest applications of satellite technology in agriculture. Coincidentally, the tool has been unveiled as Europe celebrates the 25th anniversary of its first Earth observation satellite, the ERS 1. The spacecraft equipped with a radar system and microwave instruments was the first able to take images of the Earth’s surface even when covered with clouds.

ERS-1 enabled researchers to gain better understanding of the El Niño phenomenon, a periodically occurring warming of the Pacific Ocean, which significantly increases the risk of fires in Southeast Asia by bringing extremely dry weather.

ERS-1 also made it possible to locate sources of industrial pollution and managed to catch ships emptying their oil tanks into the sea.

Since the launch of ERS-1 in July 1991, satellite data has become an indispensable source of information for many areas of human activity from weather forecasting and climate monitoring to various areas of science and disaster management.

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