Relationships and fire feedbacks in the Earth system over medium and long timescales in the deep past
Baker, Sarah Jane
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
Reason for embargo
Publication of papers from the results in this thesis.
Fire is a natural process that has existed on our planet for more than ~350 million years, and is a process that continues to influence our everyday lives. On Earth, a relationship exists between the process of combustion and the natural functioning of the Earth system. Here, the process of combustion has been implicated in playing an essential role for life on Earth, where natural Earth system processes have been shown to influence ignition probability, fire spread and fire behaviour, and where fire can provide a variety of feedbacks, to the Earth system over different timescales. Over medium timescales of decades to hundreds of thousands of years, the likelihood and behaviour of fires are controlled by regional climate changes and vegetation type, whilst the occurrence of fire can play a crucial role in influencing biome persistence and development. Over long timescales (hundreds of thousands to multi-million year), the components influencing the probability of fire and fire behaviour not only involve processes occurring over local and regional spatial scales, and over short and medium timescales, but also long term processes occurring globally, such as changes in atmospheric oxygen concentration and the evolution of vegetation. Across these timescales in Earth’s past, combustion has been shown to impact global ecosystems, climate and the carbon cycle by generating feedbacks that influence Earth’s biogeochemical cycles. However, it is clear that our understanding of the role that fire plays in the Earth system, although improving is still developing. This thesis provides an analysis of these Earth system - fire relationships and feedbacks across medium and long timescales in deep time, in order to understand the role that fire may have played and what the record of fire can tell us about the functioning and re-equilibrating of the Earth system during and after significant carbon-cycle perturbation events occurring in Earth’s deep past. The results presented in this thesis contribute what is believed to be the first fossil evidence that rising atmospheric oxygen and fire feedbacks may have aided in the termination of a significant carbon-cycle perturbation event, termed the ‘Toarcian oceanic anoxic event’ that occurred ~183 million years ago during the Jurassic period, and the return of the Earth system towards ‘background functioning’. This thesis also provides an analysis of the record of wildfire in the form of fossil charcoal across the initiation of an anoxic event that occurred ~93 million years ago, during the Cretaceous period. The results illustrate that CO2 - climate driven changes in wildfire activity can be observed across medium timescales even during times of significant carbon-cycle perturbations, and modelled high atmospheric oxygen concentrations. These results illustrate how hypothesized changes in the hydrological cycle, and likely moisture content of fuel, appear to be the dominant control on wildfire activity during this period. Finally, this thesis provides an analysis of charcoal abundance variations occurring across natural, orbitally forced cycles, termed the Milankovitch cycles. The results presented illustrate that natural variations in charcoal abundance are possible over intermediate timescales within the geological record. This thesis therefore illustrates a need to take into consideration and incorporate ‘natural background’ fluctuations in fire activity occurring over medium timescales, when analysing and predicting past and future climate change patterns.
Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) for funding this work through a studenship grant
Belcher, Claire M.
PhD in Geography