Frequent fires raged across Antarctica 75 million years ago, study reveals

The regular forest fires at the end of the dinosaur era were intimately linked to active volcanic occurrences.
Nergis Firtina
Fires on Antarctica
Paleoenvironmental reconstruction of austral areas under the influence of paleo-wildfires promoted by the Campanian active volcanism.

Manfroi et al.   

A discovery concerning Antarctica, the world's most hostile continent, has been made by paleontologists from Brazil and Chile. Despite being covered in snow today, millions of years ago, Antarctica would have looked much different.

The study, led by Brazilian paleobotanist Dr. Joseline Manfroi and her team, demonstrates that regular forest fires in Antarctica during the end of the dinosaur era, 75 million years ago, were intimately linked to active volcanic occurrences, as Phys reported.

Paleontological materials gathered by scientific expeditions led by the Chilean Antarctic Institute (INACH) and the Brazilian Antarctic Program (Proantaron King George Island, in the Shetland Islands archipelago, on the Antarctic Peninsula) served as the basis for the research.

Dr. Joseline Manfroi had earlier established the first proof of forest fire occurrence in Antarctica in a 2015 publication titled "The first report of a Campanian palaeo-wildfire in the West Antarctic Peninsula," which was published in the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Paleoecology. Another research on Antarctica provided additional information on the subject in 2021.

On fire throughout the Cretaceous period

The study conducted by Dr. Joseline and colleagues while she was a postdoctoral researcher at the Chilean Antarctic Institute provides new data that shows Antarctica was essentially on fire throughout the Cretaceous period and that forest fires often occurred. The vigorous volcanism during the period was linked to these fire episodes.

Global environmental changes, in the opinion of the study's authors, are one of the most difficult issues for humans to comprehend. In this regard, it is crucial to create situations that make it easier to understand how the world's most diverse settings have evolved over time.

"... and this construction goes beyond the current signs of disturbances in the environments, but it is also necessary to pay attention to studies that represent a broader temporal scale. Therefore, characterizing and understanding past environments of the Earth, the paleoenvironments, and their disturbing agents (such as fire), are fundamental tools for the construction of scenarios and models that enable a better understanding of terrestrial dynamics and assist in the conservation of current biota," explained Manfoi.

The study was published in Frontiers in Earth Science.

Study abstract:

The analysis of palaeofloras and the related palaeoecological conditions is of great importance for the understanding of past environmental and palaeoclimatic events in Antarctica. At the end of the Cretaceous, subtropical forests developed there because of wet and temperate climate conditions. On the Antarctic Peninsula, which is geologically characterized by a forearc context, volcanic activity caused by tectonics favours the ignition of vegetation fires. In the present study, the occurrence of palaeo-wildfires during the Upper Cretaceous is demonstrated for the Rip Point outcrop on Nelson Island, South Shetland Islands. During Brazilian expeditions to the area, macroscopic charcoal was collected and subsequently analysed under a stereomicroscope and scanning electron microscope (SEM). The charred wood remains were identified as belonging to conifers, which were important components of the Antarctic palaeoflora during the Cretaceous. A review of the data published thus far regarding palaeo-wildfires in the Southern Hemisphere confirms that the charcoal remains analysed here are the first to verify the occurrence of palaeo-wildfires in the upper Campanian levels of the West Antarctic Peninsula.

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