Ocean sediments contain a record of past vegetation fires, called biomass burning by scientists -- and this record shows much more past burning, at least in Africa during the Pleistocene era, than researchers expected.
National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded marine geologists David Verardo and William Ruddiman of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville have found in their research on ocean sediments the first detailed marine record of late Pleistocene era fires on land. Their paper, "Late Pleistocene charcoal in tropical Atlantic deep-sea sediments: Climatic and geochemical significance," appears in the September issue of the journal GEOLOGY.
"Biomass burning, a result of fires started by lightning strikes, is important for its relationship to climate (drier climates have more burning) and its immense effect on vegetation, and therefore land ecosystems," says Connie Sancetta, program director in NSF's marine geology and geophysics program, which funded Verardo's research along with NSF's climate dynamics program.
The burning of trees and grasses on land produces charred particles, or charcoal. Charcoal may then be transported long distances by winds and rivers to coastal and ocean environments, where it's then preserved in ocean sediments. Explains Verardo, "Charcoal may be swept aloft in plumes rising from active fires, and transported by prevailing winds from the source area to the ocean within days to weeks of its initial formation. It eventually sinks and becomes part of the sediments at the bottom of the sea."
Verardo studied such sediments by analyzing a core taken from the
bottom of the eastern tropical Atlantic Ocean. "It was full, much to
my surprise, of a large amount of charcoal," he says. "Given the
great distance to land and the regional slope of the sea floor, the
charcoal in this core must have been brought there by winds." The
charcoal is a mixture of pa
Contact: Cheryl Dybas
National Science Foundation