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Fire Interactions with Life on Earth

Final Report Summary - PROJECT FILE (Fire Interactions with Life on Earth)

EU funded Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship Project FILE

“Fire Interactions with Life on Earth”

Earth history has been punctuated by many episodes of climatic change. How these events have influenced forest fire frequencies and fire regime are poorly understood. As we face a current global warming crisis building an understanding of ecosystem changes in response to climate variations and how these changes might affect forest fire frequencies is becoming an area of increasing concern, both in terms of risk to human life and property and ecosystems processes and structure. The aim of Project FILE is to create new ways to understand variations in the planets past flammability and use these novel methods to study variations in fire activity across important past global warming events. This research will enhance our ability to create estimates of and provide data toward mitigation against future forest fire threats.

Project FILE has been undertaken using a unique collaboration between the researcher Dr Claire M. Belcher (U. Exeter), the world leading climate scientist Prof. Tim Lenton (U. Exeter) and Dr Guillermo Rein an expert in fire safety engineering (then at BRE Centre for Fire Safety Engineering, now at Imperial College London). Project FILE has created a unique coupling of disciplines by applying modern fire safety engineering experimental approaches to understanding the flammability of natural plant materials and using these experiments to improve our ability to estimate changes to forest fires in Earth’s ancient past.

The challenge of Project FILE has been to consider the way in which vegetation is represented in the rock record, in the form of fossils, and relate what fossils provide us with in order in terms of information that can inform an understanding of past forest fires. For example Fig 1 shows 2 types of 200 million year old fossil leaves. We cannot tell the moisture content of these leaves at any specific period in time, we cannot tell directly the oil content of the leaves – two key things that are known to influence flammability of modern leaves. But we can observe the shape of the leaves and the size of the leaves for example. In other words we can consider variations in plant and leaf morphology and how these factors play a role in influencing the flammable properties of leaves and use this understanding to build a picture of the potential flammability of ancient forests as reconstructed from fossil leaves.

Figure 1 see pdf attachment

Project FILE has tested the flammability of 45 plant types that cover a full range of leaf morphologies. The time taken for the leaves to ignite, the duration for which they burned for and the heat that the combustion reaction released has been measured for all samples. These flammability parameters have then been analysed in terms of the original morphology of the leaves to look for uniting patterns between plants in respect to their intrinsic flammability. Figure 2 shows an example of a flammability experiment undertaken in a state-of-the-art fire safety engineering apparatus.

Figure 2 see pdf attachment

The leaf morphology flammability metrics have been applied to records of vegetation change across two past periods of climatic change; the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (~ 55 million years ago) and the period from the Miocene to Mid Pliocene (23 – 3.5 million years ago). The results reveal that climate driven changes to the types of plant that grew in these ancient ecosystems and/or changes in the leaves of plants themselves had the ability to change the nature of the fires and impact the fire regimes that dominated in an area.

Project FILE has further enabled the establishment of a unique experimental Palaeo FireLab at the University of Exeter ( which will continue to explore and develop this exciting research area.

Further information can be seen on the following websites: