Understanding fire histories: the importance of charcoal morphology
Crawford, Alastair James
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
Reason for embargo
Material from the thesis is to be used in further publications.
Quantifying charcoal particles preserved in sedimentary environments is an established method for estimating levels of fire activity in the past, both on human and geological timescales. It has been proposed that the morphology of these particles is also a valuable source of information, for example allowing inferences about the nature of the vegetation burned. This thesis aims to broaden the theoretical basis for these methods, and to integrate morphometric study of sedimentary charcoal with its quantification. Three key questions are addressed: firstly, whether the elongation of mesocharcoal particles is a useful indicator of fuel type; secondly, whether different sedimentary archives tend to preserve different charcoal morphologies; and finally, the critical question of how morphology affects charcoal quantification. The results corroborate the idea that grasses and trees produce mesocharcoal with distinctly different aspect ratios. However, the application of this as an indicator of vegetation change is complicated by the inclusion of species which are neither grasses nor trees, and by considerations of the effects of transportation. Charcoal morphotypes in diverse sedimentary environments are shown to be influenced by vegetation types, transportation history, and nature of the fire that produced them. Previous research has treated charcoal quantification and charcoal morphology as separate issues. Here it is shown that understanding morphology is essential for the accurate quantification of charcoal, since it affects the relationship between volumes and the two-dimensional areas from which measurements are taken. Understanding this relationship could allow such measurements to be used not just as relative measures of past fire activity, but to enable the accurate quantification of the charcoal sequestered in soils and sediments. This has important implications for our ability to understand the effects of fire on carbon cycling, and the role that fire plays in the Earth system.
Crawford, A.J. & Belcher, C.M. (2014) Charcoal morphometry for paleoecological analysis: The effects of fuel type and transportation on morphological parameters. Applications in Plant Sciences, vol. 2, no. 8, doi: apps.1400004.
Crawford A.J. & Belcher C.M. (2016) Area-volume relationships for fossil charcoal and their relevance for fire history reconstruction. The Holocene, vol. 26, no. 5, pp. 822-826, doi:10.1177/0959683615618264.
PhD in Geography (Physical)