GPWG2: African Fire History and Fire Ecology: Building Understanding and Capacity through Collaboration and Knowledge Exchange

20.07 - 22.07.2018  
Nairobi, Kenya
Contact person:
Julie Aleman, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Workshop report: 
> Access

PAGES' Global Paleofire Working Group 2 (GPWG2) will hold a workshop at the Nairobi National Museum, Nairobi, Kenya, from 20-22 July 2018.

Titled "African Fire History and Fire Ecology: Building Understanding and Capacity through Collaboration and Knowledge Exchange", the workshop is open to 50 participants, with at least 25 places reserved for attendees from African institutions.


Knowledge transfers, professional training and capacity building, network development, data collection and dissemination, thematic innovation, project emergence, fieldwork facilitation and project operationalization.


Africa is often referred to as the "fire continent" due to the regular and widespread occurrence of vegetation fires. Paleofire research and science application in Africa emerged as key issues and high priority needs by the international scientific community during the recent cross-disciplinary workshop on "paleofire data-model comparison" at Harvard Forest (Sept. 2015) and on "Fire history baseline by Biome" in Bordeaux (Sept. 2016).

GPWG2 comprises four cross-cutting initiatives including "geographical challenges". The workshop planned here is the first workshop specifically intended to improve our scientific knowledge of African fire history, to be hosted in Africa, and to recruit African researchers in particular. The "geographical challenge" is a critical point in the development of the GPWG2 network and scientific activities, because of the vital role that fire management in Africa plays with respect to human development, biodiversity and the global climate system.

More important than simply expanding coverage of the global charcoal database is the ability to extract meaningful information and address key questions about fire history in Africa. Two major challenges are emerging from recent and ongoing GPWG2 global syntheses of fire: 1) local, regional, continental, and global fire history must be connected to and understood in relation to modern fire data and activities, and 2) understanding the dominant controls of fire (e.g. climate, vegetation and humans) during the late Quaternary in each region is highly dependent on collaborative, interdisciplinary research. Indeed, to propose a long-term global biomass burning reconstruction that is comparable with remote sensing or modelled fire related data, it is essential to have accurate representations of both global and regional spatio-temporal variability in fire.

Africa poses a particularly critical gap in our knowledge of fire history at this time. Regional fire workshops will build a strong network of researchers and managers focused on fire at different temporal and spatial scales (paleoecologists, archaeologists, historians, modern ecologists, agronomists, etc.) and identify laboratories that can act as hubs to disseminate methodologies, materials and training to other facilities. The workshop will have a significant capacity-building component and it is hoped that it will inspire new work on paleofire across the continent.

Workshop overview

Fire in Africa is used by people for different forms of land uses (agriculture, breeding, hunting…) and remains a dominant tool for land management in protected and non-protected areas. Future rainfall changes may strongly impact regional fire regimes with nonlinear responses from the moist Afromontane forest to savanna grasslands.

Moreover, human-modified fire regimes are widely considered by scientists to contribute to tropical ecosystem degradation, largely because fires can catastrophically transform forest ecosystems. The last IPCC report recommends decreasing the use of fire in savannas to avoid fire propagation and uncontrolled mega-event within adjacent forests. These recommendations, however, lack information about the socio-environmental role of fire and about the long-term functioning of fire in African forest and savanna ecosystems. Long-term fire records are thus urgently needed to understand future interactions of climate, vegetation and land use in tropical areas, and the extent to which future fire regimes will affect ecosystem health, ecosystem services and the global carbon balance.

Compared to extratropical regions, charcoal data from the tropics, and in particular Africa, are still very scarce, or limited by chronological and taphonomical issues which hamper their interpretation. As a result, there is little information about past trends in biomass burning, and about the way paleorecords in tropical areas can be used to inform ecosystem management and conservation.


The objectives of this workshop are:

1) Assess available proxy for past biomass burning (sediment and soil charcoal, tree-rings, bio-markers but also historic documents) to summarize our current understanding of the long-term functioning and role of fire in Africa by spatial and temporal analyses of available data.

2) Develop a capacity building network for African scientists in order to develop the systematic analysis of charcoal during sediment cores by considering:

(i) the different methodology,
(ii) available calibration and other geospatial analyses,
(iii) statistical framework, and
(iv) identification of key areas for future studies.

3) Promote dissemination of Africa fire history and long-term fire ecology. Discuss the ways in which paleofire data shed light on current management and policy decisions. The working group will explore weather fire is a tool or a threat across various ecological and social spaces.


Before the workshop, attendees are asked to prepare a 5 minutes presentation on: 1) their research background and expertise, 2) what are their interests, expectations and goals from this workshop, 3) one key research question from their area of investigation in Africa.

You are welcome also to bring your own charcoal dataset (e.g. xls file) for discussion.

We invite attendees to come at the workshop with their own laptop/computer. If possible, please install the latest version of the software R* ( and RStudio ( Guidance and a short introduction to R and RStudio will be provided during the first day.
*suggested R packages to install for this workshop: mgcv, vegan, ggplot2, xlsx, gridExtra, car, rpart, GCD, rworldmap

Day 1 - Knowledge transfer: data collection and data analyses

09.30-10.00 Introduction: welcome and aims of the workshop (All organizers)
10.00-11.00 Thematic session I: 'Charcoal as a fire proxy': (D. Colombaroli/C. Courtney-Mustaphi/), followed by discussion
11.00-11.30 Coffee break
11.30-12.30 Short individual presentations (part 1)
12.30-13.30 Lunch break
13.30-14.00 Short individual presentations (part 2)
14.00-15.00 Thematic session II: 'Modern continental-scale proxy calibrations' (C. Adolf)
15.00-16.00 Practical session I: Charcoal identification, counting, morphology (C. Courtney-Mustaphi/C. Adolf)
16.00-16.30 Coffee break
16.30-18.00 Practical session II: Quantitative analyses of palaeoecological data in R (D. Colombaroli)

Day 2 - African paleofire records: spatio-temporal gaps and challenges

09.30-10.00 Thematic session III: The Global Charcoal Database (GCD): data upload and data mining (B. Vannière)
10.00-11.00 Practical session III: The Global Charcoal Database (B. Vannière), followed by discussion about the Global Modern Charcoal Database
11.00-11.30 Coffee break
11.30-12.30 Breakout session III: Identification of geographical and temporal gaps using the GCD
12.30-13.30 Lunch break
13.30-14.30 Thematic session IV: Biome distribution and critical transitions in the Afrotropics (video conference with J. Aleman)
14.30-16.00 Breakout session IV: State-of-the art and assessment of charcoal data from Africa
16.00-16.30 Coffee break
16.30-18.00 Breakout session IV (Continued): with group report and plenary discussion

Day 3 - Global changes, fire and conservation: capacity building and collaborations

09.30-10.00 Thematic session V: Applied paleoecology in the African context: diverse knowledge systems for fire policy and biodiversity conservation (@diverse_K; All organizers)
10.00-11.00 Breakout session V: paleo-informed biodiversity conservation
11.00-11.30 Coffee break
11.30-12.30 Breakout session V (continued): paleo-informed fire policy (with plenary discussion)
12.30-14.00 Lunch break
13.30-14.00 Thematic session VI: future projects (J. Aleman)
14.30-16.00 Breakout session VI: drafting new projects based on the research gaps/challenges identified before. Potential funding sources and new collaborations opportunities
16.00-17.00 Wrap-up, research agenda and concluding remarks (plenary)

Online resources

1. Global Paleofire Working Group (GPWG2) on PAGES website

2. Global Charcoal Database & Global Paleofire Working Group

3. Macroscopic charcoal analysis of sediments - visual guide with lab photos

4. R

5. RStudio

6. Paleofire R-Package

7. Download the Reading List

Financial support

A small amount of financial support will be available to assist selected participants, mainly early-career researchers and those from less-favored countries. Please state in your application if you require financial support.


Applications must be sent to Julie Aleman (email address below) by 15 May 2018.
Interested participants must send a short letter, stating their interests in the workshop and their background.


B. Vannière, C. Courtney-Mustaphi, J. Aleman, C. Adolf, D. Colombaroli and the GPWG2.

Further information

Contact co-organizer Julie Aleman: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Post-meeting material

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Participants looking for charcoal in the image of a sediment core sample.




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Daniele Colombaroli demonstrating the Russian corer.




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Carole Adolf preparing the samples for viewing at the microscope.