Smouldering mega-fires in the Earth system

Dr Guillermo Rein School of Engineering University of Edinburgh

Sign at NTU Singapore, 2011

22 Oct 1997 smoke plume, NASA TOMS satellite
Page et al. Nature 420, 2002

2008 - The Evans Road fire, NC burned for 7 months
During worst drought on record 16,500 ha burned (2x year avg.) 1 m deep into the soil Stopped by flooding and excavation



National Geographic 2008/ AP Photo/MODIS

2009 Tablas de Daimiel National Park, Spain

World Map of Peatlands
Contain more terrestrial carbon than the forests or the atmosphere

Gore, 1983

Russian summer mega fires, 2010

July 1999: Anomalous climate conditions led to a smouldering fire at the wild-urban interface. Peat fires burned South of the city for weeks and haze covered five districts. Other peat fires elsewhere in Russia forced President Boris Yeltsin to change holiday resort.

Days in July 1999

1999 A Belenky / SPT

August 1972: Moscow and Alaska

Smouldering Combustion

JB Nielsen, wikipedia

JL Torero, UCB

smouldering/flaming Heterogeneous combustion at fuel pores Peat (esp. dry) Incomplete combustion Flameless Low peak temperature (~600°C) Low heat of combustion (~5 kJ/g) Creeping propagation (~1 mm/min)

C s + O2 → CO2 + H 2O + CO + ∑ (CH 4 , C3 H 8 , NH 3, CH 3OH ...) + char s + ash s
Rein, Intern. Review Chemical Engineering 2009

Most persistent fires on Earth
Smouldering fires are the easiest to ignite
Ignition with 50% smaller heat sources (8 vs. 15 kW/m2) Self-heating possible at ambient temperatures <30 ºC

Smouldering fires are most difficult to suppress
Larger amounts of water (>50% more kgH2O/kgfuel) Much longer sealing hold-on times (~100 days) Lower critical oxygen concentration (<16%)

The oldest continuously burning fire on Earth is a smouldering coal seam in Australia ignited >6,000 years old (most probable natural causes)

Smouldering spread
30 x 30 x 5 cm layer of peat
Top view, Visual camera Top view, Infrared camera

video speeded up 600 times 1 s video = 10 min experiment

tim e


Spread and in-depth burning
leading edge



undisturbed peat

trailing edge residual layer of char and ash


Mega-fire spread
& & m, m′′ = burning rate (total, and per unit area) m, m′′, hb = fuel consumption (total, and per unit area) and depth of burn A, t = Fire area and burning time Sl , Si , ρ 0 = spread rate, in - depth rate and density (~ constant)

A = π (S l t ) & m′′ = ρ 0 Si


smouldering flaming

mt total fuel consumption

& & mt = m′′A

m” fuel consumption per unit area

h0 ρ 0

t3 t2
t, time

& ⇒ mt = πρ0 Si Sl2t 2

t, time

& m′′ = ∫ m′′dt = ρ 0 Si t = ρ 0 hb

& mt = ∫ mt dt =


ρ 0 Si Sl2t 3

Depth of Burn hb
hb = Si t (in - depth spread at ~ 0.5mm/min)

The depth of burnt hb increases linearly with time Maximum value h0 is given by the location of the inert layer, very moist layer (>125%MC) or firefighting attempts Depth of burn of 5 cm leads to ~7 kg/m2 Values reported in the literature from 0.1 to 5 m Most typical average is 0.5 m (=75 kg/m2) In-depth spread over thick peat layers leads to 40 to 90 times larger fuel consumption than flaming fires

Lost Mass and Ignition

for a 8% inert

Carbon Emissions flux

Hadden, PhD Thesis 2011

Carbon emissions from fires are 3,000 times larger the natural respiration flux from peatlands

Flaming vs. Smouldering
Flaming fires consume grasslands, shrubs and forests. These take 10-102 years to grow back and sequester back the carbon = Renewable & Carbon

Smouldering fires consume peat, 4 National Geographic 2008/ AP Photo/MODIS These take 10 organic soils and coal. to 109 years to grow again =
Not Renewable & Carbon Positive Smouldering fires burn pre-fossil and fossil fuels

Feedback Mechanism in the Earth System

the topics I work on

Feedback Mechanism in Earth System
Smouldering phenomena involve the burning of fossil fuels and are carbon-positive. This creates a positive feedback mechanism in the climate system
Moisture deficit and self-heating of carbonaceous media are enhanced under warmer climates Drier and warmer organic matter leads to more frequent smouldering fires.

Warmer temperatures at high latitudes are already resulting in large smouldering fires in the Arctic (e.g., Alaska 2010).

1. Accidental burning of fossil fuels (incl. natural sources) 2. Equivalent on average to ~15% of man-made carbon

emissions 3. Positive feedback mechanisms between smouldering fires and climate change Very large fires of organic matter (mostly peat) have burnt since past millennia for long periods of time (months, years, decades) Possible acceleration due to drying/drainage In terms of fuel consumption, these are mega-fires Concepts as fire exclusion or prescribe burning cannot apply

Belcher et al, PNAS 2011 Rein, Int Review Chemical Engineering 2009 Hadden, PhD Thesis 2011 Rein et al., Proc Combustion Institute 2009 Rein et al, Catena 2008

Smoulder bing since 2008
~1 m/month

off-gassing vent oxidation front drying front

Bing 35 m high pile of oilshale and coal wastes, formed in the 1920s near Glasgow, has been smouldering for two years


Critical Oxygen Concentration

15% O2

17% O2
Belcher et al, PNAS 2011

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