Charcoal reveals wildfire history

UK scientists have traced the history of wildfires by studying ancient charcoal from around the world. Most people probably regard charcoal as nothing more than lumps of black stuff, however it contains beautifully preserved anatomical details of the plant. This gives a great deal of information to researchers.

The fossils in ancient charcoal show the incidence of fires through time is closely related to the level of atmospheric oxygen – with increases in the frequency of fires as the oxygen levels in the atmosphere increase.

    “Fire sustains certain systems. If more carbon is bound up and buried as charcoal, you are taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, which changes the climate.

    “In the time we looked at, we had the ‘global ice house’ (a period worldwide cooling) and a fall in sea levels; you have therefore more area to be colonized by plants which can burn. And as the oxygen levels rise, you can burn more and more of the wetter material. So, you get various feedbacks.”

    “From an Earth systems point of view, factoring in fire is quite important. ” – Professor Andrew Scott