Smoke radiocarbon measurements from Indonesian fires provide evidence for burning of millennia-aged peat

In response to a strong El Niño, fires in Indonesia during September and October 2015 released a large amount of carbon dioxide and created a massive regional smoke cloud that severely degraded air quality in many urban centers across Southeast Asia. Although several lines of evidence indicate that peat burning was a dominant contributor to emissions in the region, El Niño-induced drought is also known to increase deforestation fires and agricultural waste burning in plantations. As a result, uncertainties remain with respect to partitioning emissions among different ecosystem and fire types. Here we measured the radiocarbon content (14C) of carbonaceous aerosol samples collected in Singapore from September 2014 through October 2015, with the aim of identifying the age and origin of fire-emitted fine particulate matter (particulate matter with an aerodynamic diameter less than or equal to 2.5 μm). The Δ14C of fire-emitted aerosol was −76 ± 51, corresponding to a carbon pool of combusted organic matter with a mean turnover time of 800 ± 420 y. Our observations indicated that smoke plumes reaching Singapore originated primarily from peat burning (∼85%), and not from deforestation fires or waste burning. Atmospheric transport modeling confirmed that fires in Sumatra and Borneo were dominant contributors to elevated PM2.5 in Singapore during the fire season. The mean age of the carbonaceous aerosol, which predates the Industrial Revolution, highlights the importance of improving peatland fire management during future El Niño events for meeting climate mitigation and air quality commitments.
  • Authors: Wiggins, E.B., Czimczik, C.I., Santos, G.M., Chen, Y., Xu, X., Holden, S.R., Randerson, J.T., Harvey, C.F., Kai, F.M., Yu, L.E.
  • Author Affiliation: University of California, Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, National University of Singapore, National Metrology Centre
  • Subjects: fire management, peatlands, radiocarbon dating, deforestation, agricultural wastes, air quality, biomass, emissions
  • Publication type: Journal Article
  • Source: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 115(49): 12419-12424
  • Year: 2018
  • DOI:
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