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Burning planet: the story of fire through time (lecture)

Thursday, 12 March 2020
7:30 pm - 9:30 pm
Event Category:
Lecture Theatre, Gregory Building
c/o School of Geographical & Earth Sciences
Glasgow, Glasgow City G12 8QQ United Kingdom

Professor Andrew Scott, Royal Holloway, University of London

This talk will cover the past, present and future of wildfires and their environmental effects and especially the role of fire in Earth systems processes. In particular I will concentrate on modern and ancient fires, their products (charcoal) and effects, including the rise of fire in the Devonian, the evolution of late Palaeozoic fire systems and evidence for fire at the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM).

Charcoal preserves the anatomy of the plants that have been burnt. Scanning electron microscopy is routinely used to study their morphology and anatomy and new methods of obtaining temperature of charcoal formation using reflected light microscopy have been developed. This has implications for both studies of natural wildfires as well as for our understanding of the human use of wood and charcoal as a fuel.

Biogeochemical modelling suggests significant variation of atmospheric oxygen in deep time. Using a charcoal proxy for atmospheric oxygen over the past 350 million years there is evidence for significantly high levels of oxygen in the late Palaeozoic and in the Cretaceous suggesting high levels of fire at that time. This resulted in the rapid spread of weedy flowering plants in the Cretaceous.
Studies of palaeocharcoal can also delineate changes in fire over the past 20,000 years. There is a strong link between fire and climate with increased fire during periods of rapid climate change.

Background reading

Scott, A.C., Bowman, D.J.M.S., Bond, W.J., Pyne, S.J. and Alexander M. 2014. Fire on Earth: An Introduction. J. Wiley and Sons. 413 pp.
Scott, A.C., Chaloner, W.G., Belcher, C.M., Roos, C.I. (eds). 2016. The interaction of fire and mankind. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. 371, Issue 1696. 252 pp.
Scott, A.C. 2018. Burning Planet. The story of fire through time. Oxford University Press. 224 pp.
Scott, A.C., Hilton, J., Galtier, J. & Stampanoni, M. 2019, A Charcoalified Ovule Adapted for Wind Dispersal and Deterring Herbivory from the Late Viséan (Carboniferous) of Scotland, International Journal of Plant Sciences, 180, pp. 1059-1074.
Scott, A.C. 2020. Fire. A very short introduction. Oxford University Press. 144 pp.

Andrew will have copies of his books for sale and signing after the lecture.

Andrew graduated with a B.Sc. in Geology from Bedford College, University of London in 1973. He then undertook his doctoral research in the Botany Department at Birkbeck College. and was awarded his PhD in 1976 for his thesis “Environmental Control of Westphalian Plant Assemblages from Northern Britain”. Following post-doctoral research in the Department of Geology at Trinity College Dublin he was appointed as Lecturer in Geology in the Department of Geology at Chelsea College, University of London in 1978 which in 1985 became part of the new Geology Department at Royal Holloway, University of London. Andrew was promoted to Senior Lecturer in 1989, Reader in 1993 and to Professor of Applied Palaeobotany in 1996. He was appointed Emeritus Professor of Geology in 2012. In 2019 he was appointed a Distinguished Research Professor in Ancient and Modern Fire Systems.