Fossil study helps predict climate change

Ancient fossils from forest wildfires in Greenland are helping scientists to predict the effects of climate change.

Scientists have been studying 200 million-year-old fossils, which contain remains of dead and burnt plants.

Research shows that a change in vegetation, along with warmer temperatures and more frequent storms, led to a five-fold increase in natural wildfires in East Greenland at this time.

The findings will help scientists to broaden their understanding of past Earth climates and give researchers fresh insight to improve models of the possible effects of future climate change.

Fire risk

Millions of years ago in East Greenland, warming climate and high levels of CO2 in the atmosphere caused plants to evolve from having thick to narrow leaves, which helped prevent them from losing water.

Laboratory experiments have shown plants of this shape to be more flammable, and therefore prone to wildfires.

The study sheds light on how climate-driven changes in vegetation can cause increases in the flammability of plants.

Impact of findings

This research may help understanding of whether or not plant life could become more flammable based on global warming estimates.

The study, published in Nature Geoscience, was a joint project between fire engineers at the University of Edinburgh and Earth scientists at University College Dublin, the University of Oxford and the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

It was funded by EU Marie Curie and the University of Edinburgh’s BRE Centre for Fire Safety Engineering.

This research brought together scientists from very different backgrounds, and doing so has given us insights into climate change that we might otherwise not have had. This highlights how new ideas can be formed when scientists from very different backgrounds meet.

Dr Guillermo ReinSchool of Engineering