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Other research product . 2019

Evidence for fire in the Pliocene Arctic in response to amplified temperature

Fletcher, Tamara L.; Warden, Lisa; Sinninghe Damsté, Jaap S.; Brown, Kendrick J.; Rybczynski, Natalia; Gosse, John C.; Ballantyne, Ashley P.;
Open Access
Published: 19 Jun 2019

The mid-Pliocene is a valuable time interval for investigating equilibrium climate at current atmospheric CO2 concentrations because atmospheric CO2 concentrations are thought to have been comparable to the current day and yet the climate and distribution of ecosystems were quite different. One intriguing, but not fully understood, feature of the early to mid-Pliocene climate is the amplified Arctic temperature response and its impact on Arctic ecosystems. Only the most recent models appear to correctly estimate the degree of warming in the Pliocene Arctic and validation of the currently proposed feedbacks is limited by scarce terrestrial records of climate and environment. Here we reconstruct the summer temperature and fire regime from a subfossil fen-peat deposit on west–central Ellesmere Island, Canada, that has been chronologically constrained using cosmogenic nuclide burial dating to 3.9+1.5/-0.5 Ma. The estimate for average mean summer temperature is 15.4±0.8 ∘C using specific bacterial membrane lipids, i.e., branched glycerol dialkyl glycerol tetraethers. This is above the proposed threshold that predicts a substantial increase in wildfire in the modern high latitudes. Macro-charcoal was present in all samples from this Pliocene section with notably higher charcoal concentration in the upper part of the sequence. This change in charcoal was synchronous with a change in vegetation that included an increase in abundance of fire-promoting Pinus and Picea. Paleo-vegetation reconstructions are consistent with warm summer temperatures, relatively low summer precipitation and an incidence of fire comparable to fire-adapted boreal forests of North America and central Siberia. To our knowledge, this site provides the northernmost evidence of fire during the Pliocene. It suggests that ecosystem productivity was greater than in the present day, providing fuel for wildfires, and that the climate was conducive to the ignition of fire during this period. The results reveal that interactions between paleo-vegetation and paleoclimate were mediated by fire in the High Arctic during the Pliocene, even though CO2 concentrations were similar to modern values.

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Funded by
  • Funder: Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC)
NWO| Perturbations of System Earth: Reading the Past to Project the Future - A proposal to create the Netherlands Earth System Science Centre (ESSC), NSF| Collaborative Research: Arctic Temperature Amplification during the Middle Pliocene (ArcAMP): Assessing the Interaction Among Feedback Mechanisms
  • Funder: National Science Foundation (NSF)
  • Project Code: 1418421
  • Funding stream: Directorate for Geosciences | Division of Polar Programs
Past Continental Climate Change: Temperatures from marine and lacustrine archives
  • Funder: European Commission (EC)
  • Project Code: 226600
  • Funding stream: FP7 | SP2 | ERC
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