The fire radiative power (FRP) of active fires (AFs) is routinely assessed with spaceborne sensors. MODIS is commonly used, and its 1 km nadir pixel size provides a minimum per-pixel FRP detection limit of ~5–8 MW, leading to undercounting of AF pixels with FRPs of less than around 10 MW. Since most biomes show increasing AF pixel frequencies with decreasing FRP, this results in MODIS failing to detect many fires burning when it overpasses. However, the exact magnitude of the landscape-scale FRP underestimation induced by this type of AF undercounting remains poorly understood, as does its sensitivity to sensor pixel size and overpass time. We investigate these issues using both 1 km spaceborne MODIS data and 50 m MODIS Airborne Simulator (MAS) observations of the Brazilian cerrado, a savannah-like environment covering 2 million km2
(>20%) of Brazil where fires are a frequent occurrence. The MAS data were collected during the 1995 SCAR-B experiment, and are able to be spatially degraded to simulate data from sensors with a wide variety of pixel sizes. We explore multiple versions of these MAS data to deliver recommendations for future satellite sensor design, aiming to discover the most effective sensor characteristics that provide negligible pixel-area related FRP underestimation whilst keeping pixels large enough to deliver relatively wide swath widths. We confirm earlier analyses showing 1 km MODIS-type observations fail to detect a very significant number of active fires, and find the degree of undercounting gets worse away from the early afternoon diurnal fire cycle peak (~ 15:00 local time). However, the effect of these undetected fires on the assessment of total landscape-scale FRP is far less significant, since they are mostly low FRP fires. Using two different approaches we estimate that the MODIS-type 1 km data underestimates landscape scale FRP by around a third, and that whilst the degree of underestimation worsens away from the diurnal fire cycle peak the effect of this maybe less important since there are far fewer fires present. MAS data degraded to a 200 m spatial resolution provides landscape-scale FRP totals almost indistinguishable from those calculated with the original 50 m MAS observations, and still provides a pixel size consistent with a wide swath imaging instrument. Our work provides a potentially useful guide for future mission developers aiming at active fire and FRP applications, and we conclude that such missions need operate at spatial resolutions no higher than 200 m if they rely on cooled, low-noise IR detectors. Further work confirming this for fire-affected biomes beyond the savannah-type environments studied here is recommended.
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