Wildfire responses to abrupt climate change in North America

J. R. Marion, P. J. Bartlein, M. K. Walsh, S. P. Harrison, K. J. Brown, M. E. Edwards, P. E. Higuera, M. J. Power, R. S. Anderson, C. Briles, A. Brunelle, C. Carcaillet, M. Daniels, F. S. Hu, M. Lavoie, C. Long, T. Minckley, P. J.H. Richard, A. C. Scott, D. S. ShaferW. Tinner, C. E. Umbanhowar, C. Whitlock

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    Abstract

    It is widely accepted, based on data from the last few decades and on model simulations, that anthropogenic climate change will cause increased fire activity. However, less attention has been paid to the relationship between abrupt climate changes and heightened fire activity in the paleorecord. We use 35 charcoal and pollen records to assess how fire regimes in North America changed during the last glacial-interglacial transition (15 to 10 ka), a time of large and rapid climate changes. We also test the hypothesis that a comet impact initiated continental-scale wildfires at 12.9 ka; the data do not support this idea, nor are continent-wide fires indicated at any time during deglaciation. There are, however, clear links between large climate changes and fire activity. Biomass burning gradually increased from the glacial period to the beginning of the Younger Dryas. Although there are changes in biomass burning during the Younger Dryas, there is no systematic trend. There is a further increase in biomass burning after the Younger Dryas. Intervals of rapid climate change at 13.9, 13.2, and 11.7 ka are marked by large increases in fire activity. The timing of changes in fire is not coincident with changes in human population density or the timing of the extinction of the megafauna. Although these factors could have contributed to fire-regime changes at individual sites or at specific times, the charcoal data indicate an important role for climate, and particularly rapid climate change, in determining broad-scale levels of fire activity.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)2519-2524
    Number of pages6
    JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
    Volume106
    Issue number8
    DOIs
    Publication statusPublished - 24 Feb 2009

    Keywords

    • Biomass burning
    • Charcoal
    • Comet
    • Younger dryas

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