In a new study led by the Federal University of Pernambuco in Recife, Brazil has found that wildfires sparked by volcanic eruptions ravaged Antarctica’s James Ross Island 75 million years ago. This discovery adds evidence that spontaneous fires were common in Antarctica during the Campanian age between 84 and 72 million years ago.
During the late Cretaceous period (100 to 66 million years ago), the James Ross Island below South America was home to a temperate forest of ferns, conifers, and flowers, as well as a significant population of dinosaurs.
By analyzing fossilized charcoal fragments of burned gymnosperm (from a botanical family of coniferous trees called Araucariaceae) that were collected during a 2015-2016 expedition to the northeastern part of the island, an international team of scientists found the first evidence of ancient wildfires caused by volcanic activity in Antarctica.
“Antarctica had intense volcanic activity caused by tectonics during the Cretaceous, as suggested by the presence of fossil remains in strata related to ash falls,” explained the study authors. “It is plausible that volcanic activity ignited the palaeo-wildfire that created the charcoal reported here.”
According to the scientists, intense wildfires were frequent and widespread during the late Cretaceous period. However, most of the evidence of such events was found in the Northern Hemisphere, with just a few documented cases in the Southern Hemisphere in places such as Tasmania, New Zealand, or Argentina. The new research shows that such fires occurred in locations below South America too.
“This discovery expands the knowledge about the occurrence of vegetation fires during the Cretaceous, showing that such episodes were more common than previously imagined,” said study lead author Flaviana Jorge de Lima, a paleobiologist at the Federal University of Pernambuco.
The study is published in the journal Polar Research.