Antarctica Was on Fire 75 Million Years Ago, Ancient Embers Reveal

A new study shows that Antarctica was devastated by wildfires 75 million years ago. This is back when dinosaurs were still on the Earth.
The late Cretaceous (100 million to 666 million years ago), was one of the warmest periods of Earth's history. Antarctica's James Ross Island housed a temperate forest with conifers, flowers, and ferns known as angiosperms.

It wasn't paradise, however. Ancient paleo-fires charred parts of the forests to a crisp, leaving behind charcoal remnants scientists have since gathered and studied.

Reconstruction of Antarctica's paleo-wildfires during the Cretaceous. (Maurilio Oliveira)

Flaviana Jorge De Lima, lead researcher at the Federal University of Pernambuco, Recife, Brazil, stated in a statement that "this discovery expands knowledge about the occurrence of foliage fires during Cretaceous,".

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This is the first record of a paleofire on James Ross Island in Antarctic Peninsula, which now lies below South America.

This discovery confirms that spontaneous fires existed in Antarctica during Campanian (roughly 84 million to 72 millions years ago). In 2015, researchers also found evidence of wildfires in West Antarctica from the dinosaur-age. According to a study published in Palaeogeography.

An international team of scientists analysed fossils from a 2015-2016 expedition to James Ross Island's northeastern region. These fossils included fragments of plants that looked similar to charcoal residue. This was because the fossils had been weathered over many millions of years.

The charcoal fragments were tiny, the largest pieces of paper-thin were 0.7 by 1.5 inches (19 x 38 millimeters). The researchers discovered their identity by scanning electron microscope images.

A coin next to a fossilized piece charcoal. (De Lima et al., Polar Research, 2021)

Researchers said that intense forest fires were common and widespread in the late Cretaceous. However, most evidence lies in the Northern Hemisphere. There are a few documented cases in South America in what is now Tasmania and New Zealand.

The supercontinent of Gondwana began to crumble during the Cretaceous. This left Antarctica less isolated than it was before. Researchers noted that this region was ice-free and had many ignition sources such as lightning strikes, fireballs falling meteors and volcanic activity. They also have high oxygen levels and flammable vegetation, which helps fires burn.

The study revealed that Antarctica experienced intense volcanic activity during the Cretaceous. This was supported by fossil remains found in strata related ash falls. It is possible that volcanic activity was responsible for the creation of the charcoal in this study.

The researchers are now looking for records of other paleo-fires in Antarctica.

The study was published online in Polar Research on October 20th.

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Live Science originally published this article. You can read the original article here.