January 17, 2022

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

John Bader
11th November 2021

As surreal and apocalyptic as it may sound, the driest and coldest continent on the planet was burned down by raging wildfires at some point in prehistory. 

A recent study conducted in Brazil shows evidence that Antarctica, the southern ice-continent, and currently considered the driest and coldest place on earth, was actually on fire. This dates back to the Cretaceous period, around 75 million years ago. Geologists refer to it as the “super fire world” since most land areas on earth were ravaged by wildfires during that period. 

“Although research on prehistoric wildfires — “paleofires” — has been going on for decades, much of it has concentrated on the Northern Hemisphere. Antarctica was first considered a region without high fires, but that changed”

André Jasper of the University of Taquari Valley in Brazil

This evidence is based on the analysis of fossilized charcoal chunks that were extracted from sediment on James Ross Island in Antarctica. “If you do a barbecue, you will have the same type of material,” Dr. André Jasper said, describing the extracted chunks. Using imaging software and scanning electron microscopy, the researchers were able to spot specific structures that proved that these fossils were once ancient plants that were burned down at some point in prehistory. Consequently, this not only proves that Antarctica hosted wildfires, but was also inhabited by certain plant species. 

Interestingly, a study published in April 2020, in which two scientists from Imperial College took part, sheds light on similar findings. Some of the findings of the study include: evidence of a temperate rainforest in Antarctica, higher temperatures and CO2 levels.

What is the relevance of this study to the current climate change crisis?

One of the main findings of the study was that the Antarctic region was covered with a rainforest. This in turn led to the assumption that the rainforest temperature tends to be around 12 degrees Celsius, which means that the south pole did not have an ice cap at that time. Comparing this estimated temperature to current average temperatures around the world, this would mean that Antarctica had an average temperature higher than Germany today. 

The earth is currently facing a warming effect, mainly due to rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere, as a result of increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Unsurprisingly, models based on the study suggest that CO2 levels were also higher than expected in the Cretateous period, providing partial explanation for the wildfires that were abundant during the period. 

Looking back at such models from prehistory, one can notice a pattern of fluctuating climate on earth. However, with the scientific and technological advancements that we currently have access to, we have the capacity to cut down CO2 emissions and avert another “super fire world” era.  

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For more on this study, make sure to check this link, and read the news piece on Imperial’s News webpage

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John Bader is the News Editor for I,Science and is studying an MSc in Science Media Production at Imperial College London