New research reveals fires were more common 300 million years ago than today

October 26, 2015, Royal Holloway, University of London

Scientists from the Department of Earth Sciences at Royal Holloway, University of London together with colleagues from the USA, Russia and China, have discovered that forest fires across the globe were more common between 300 and 250 million years ago than they are today. This is thought to be due to higher level of oxygen in the atmosphere at that time.

The study which was published in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science, found that peats that were to become coal contained high levels of charcoal that could only be explained by the high levels of fire activity.

The team used the data from charcoal in coal to propose that the development of fire systems through this interval was controlled predominantly by the elevated atmospheric oxygen concentration (p(O2)) that mass balance models predict prevailed. At of p(O2), increased fire activity would have rendered vegetation with high moisture contents more susceptible to ignition and would have facilitated continued combustion.

In the study they examine the environmental and ecological factors that would have impacted fire activity and conclude that of these factors p(O2) played the largest role in promoting fires in Late Paleozoic peat-forming environments and, by inference, ecosystems generally, when compared with their prevalence in the modern world.

Professor Andrew Scott, one of the lead authors, said: "High oxygen levels in the atmosphere at this time has been proposed for some time and may be why there were giant insects and arthropods at this time but our research indicates that there was a significant impact on the prevalence and scale of wildfires across the globe and this would have affected not only the ecology of the plants and animals but also their evolution".

Professor Scott and his colleagues and students at Royal Holloway have pioneered the study of in Earth's deep past. Professor Scott, added: "We have been able to show that wildfire was an important element in the Earth System many hundreds of millions of years before the arrival of humans."

Explore further: Wildfires occurred significantly later than previously thought as a result of changes in oxygen levels

More information: Ian J. Glasspool et al. The impact of fire on the Late Paleozoic Earth system, Frontiers in Plant Science (2015). DOI: 10.3389/fpls.2015.00756

Related Stories

When dinosaurs roamed a fiery landscape

March 29, 2012

The dinosaurs of the Cretaceous may have faced an unexpected hazard: fire! In a paper published online today, researchers from Royal Holloway University of London and The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago have shown ...

Oxygen fuels the fires of time

August 2, 2010

Variations in the Earth's atmospheric oxygen levels are thought to be closely linked to the evolution of life, with strong feedbacks between uni- and multicellular life and oxygen. Over the past 400 million years the level ...

Measuring the impacts of severe wildfires in the Arctic

October 22, 2015

Based on the number of acres burned, 2015 is shaping up to be the second most extreme fire year during the past decade in North America's boreal region. Historically, the area has had one or fewer extreme fire years per decade.

NASA image: Fires in China Oct. 18, 2013

October 18, 2013

Shuangyashan is a coal mining prefecture-level city located in the eastern part Heilongjiang province, People's Republic of China, bordering Russia's Khabarovsk and Primorsky krais to the east.

Recommended for you

Coffee-based colloids for direct solar absorption

March 22, 2019

Solar energy is one of the most promising resources to help reduce fossil fuel consumption and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions to power a sustainable future. Devices presently in use to convert solar energy into thermal ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

geokstr
1 / 5 (1) Oct 26, 2015
Must have been caused by the refusal of Ook and Mog to give up their SUVs.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.