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The history of fire in the Southern Hemisphere

17.12.2010, Age: 3964 days

The newest issue of Science covers a paper and a Science perspective about the history of biomass burning in the Southern Hemisphere. For their reconstruction, researchers measured the carbon monoxide and its isotopes they found in Antarctic ice cores.

Summary from Science:

"Fortunately for us, carbon monoxide (CO)—a toxic gas—is a very minor constituent of the atmosphere. It is produced by incomplete burning of fossil fuels and biomass (such as dry leaves and wood) and by the oxidation of methane and other volatile hydrocarbons in the atmosphere. On page 1663 of this issue, Wang et al. present high-precision measurements, taken from air trapped in Antarctic ice, of how atmospheric concentrations of CO have changed over the past 650 years. Their findings offer a striking and surprising look at the history of fire in the Southern Hemisphere, and some hints at future global fire trends."

From the abstract:

We present a 650-year Antarctic ice core record of concentration and isotopic ratios (δ13C and δ18O) of atmospheric carbon monoxide. Concentrations decreased by ~25% (14 parts per billion by volume) from the mid-1300s to the 1600s then recovered completely by the late 1800s. δ13C and δ18O decreased by about 2 and 4 per mil (‰), respectively, from the mid-1300s to the 1600s then increased by about 2.5 and 4‰ by the late 1800s. These observations and isotope mass balance model results imply that large variations in the degree of biomass burning in the Southern Hemisphere occurred during the last 650 years, with a decrease by about 50% in the 1600s, an increase of about 100% by the late 1800s, and another decrease by about 70% from the late 1800s to present day.


The research was partly supported by the European Commission and the Euroclimate program of the European Science Foundation. The paper has been written by:

Z. Wang1, J. Chappellaz2 , K. Park1 and J. E. Mak1.: Large Variations in Southern Hemisphere Biomass Burning During the Last 650 Years. Science 17 December 2010: Vol. 330 no. 6011 pp. 1663-1666 DOI: 10.1126/science.1197257

1.Institute for Terrestrial and Planetary Atmospheres/School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, USA. 2.Laboratoire de Glaciologie et Géophysique de l’Environnement (LGGE), CNRS, University of Grenoble, France.

For more information please contact Dr Jèrôme Chappellaz.

The perspective has been written by Prof Colin Prentice of the Department of Biological Sciences of Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.

Prentice, C.: The Burning Issue. Science 17 December 2010: Vol. 330 no. 6011 pp. 1636-1637. DOI: 10.1126/science.1199809

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Published By

Dr. Dick van der Wateren



biomass burning, isotope measurements, climate of the past, carbon monoxide

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