Maghemite soil nodules reveal the impact of fire on mineralogical and geochemical differentiation at the Earth's surface

Stefan C. Löhr*, David T. Murphy, Luke D. Nothdurft, Robert Bolhar, Sandra Piazolo, Coralie Siegel

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    8 Citations (Scopus)


    Fires occur frequently over large parts of the Earth's surface. They potentially exert a significant influence on the mineralogical and geochemical characteristics of an environment that is otherwise considered to be dominated by low temperature processes. We test this hypothesis by comparing the mineralogy and geochemistry of (i) magnetic, iron-rich soil nodules, (ii) non-magnetic iron soil nodules and (iii) a published dataset of surficial sediments from eastern Australia.

    Maghemite-rich nodules are present in soils from around the world. It has been argued that they are thermal alteration products of non-magnetic precursors, but this remains controversial. We use detailed petrographic and mineralogical analyses to demonstrate that maghemite occurs as part of a high temperature mineral assemblage including hematite and χ-alumina, within a magnetic nodule microfabric indicative of fire-induced dehydroxylation and sintering of non-magnetic precursors at temperatures of up to 600 °C. The genetic link between magnetic and non-magnetic nodules means that their comparison offers insights into the geochemical impact of fire.

    Our results show that magnetic nodules are depleted in Si, Y, Zr and HREE but enriched in Fe and Cr relative to non-magnetic nodules that occur in close spatial proximity. Magnetic nodules also show variable but distinctly low Y/Ho (21.4 ± 0.4) and Zr/Hf (29.3 ± 0.8) as well as anomalously low La relative to the other LREE. In situ laser ablation analyses show that this is largely due to the presence of χ-alumina that is depleted in HREEs and has extremely low Y/Ho (mainly <20), as well as the low Zr/Hf of χ-alumina and the maghemite-hematite matrix, with no involvement from zircon.

    We propose a multi-stage process of formation where fire transforms non-magnetic nodule precursors into proto-magnetic nodules. This is associated with thermal transformation of clays as well as Fe and Al oxyhydroxides, followed by isochemical segregation into a sintered core with low Si, Y/Ho, Zr/Hf and La/Gd and a reciprocal cortex. Preferential loss of the weathering-sensitive cortex, which is rarely preserved on the magnetic nodules, then results in geochemical differentiation of magnetic nodules relative to their non-magnetic precursors. We propose that the elevated Zr/Hf and Y/Ho ratios previously reported for Australian fluvial sediments reflect, at least in part, the long history of palaeo-fires in the catchments of these rivers, with preferential removal, transport and sedimentation of the readily weathered, high Y/Ho and Zr/Hf cortex material that is a product of thermal alteration of Fe nodules. In addition, since magnetic Fe nodules are demonstrably related to fire, they may represent a promising, directly dateable record of severe fires, which can complement the sedimentary charcoal record.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)25-41
    Number of pages17
    JournalGeochimica et Cosmochimica Acta
    Publication statusPublished - 2017


    • Fire
    • High temperature mineral assemblage
    • Maghemite
    • χ-Alumina
    • Rare earth elements
    • Soil iron nodules
    • Thermal alteration


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