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Climate and human influences on global biomass burning over the past two millennia

Nature Geoscience volume 1, pages 697702 (2008) | Download Citation

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  • A Corrigendum to this article was published on 23 February 2009

This article has been updated

Abstract

Large, well-documented wildfires have recently generated worldwide attention, and raised concerns about the impacts of humans and climate change on wildfire regimes. However, comparatively little is known about the patterns and driving forces of global fire activity before the twentieth century. Here we compile sedimentary charcoal records spanning six continents to document trends in both natural and anthropogenic biomass burning for the past two millennia. We find that global biomass burning declined from AD 1 to 1750, before rising sharply between 1750 and 1870. Global burning then declined abruptly after 1870. The early decline in biomass burning occurred in concert with a global cooling trend and despite a rise in the human population. We suggest the subsequent rise was linked to increasing human influences, such as population growth and land-use changes. Our compilation suggests that the final decline occurred despite increasing air temperatures and population. We attribute this reduction in the amount of biomass burned over the past 150 years to the global expansion of intensive grazing, agriculture and fire management.

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Change history

  • 23 February 2009

    In the version of this Article originally published, the y axis label of Fig. 4d was incorrect. This error has been corrected in the HTML and PDF versions.

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Acknowledgements

This article is a contribution to the Global Palaeofire Working Group (GPWG) of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Project Cross-Project Initiative on Fire. The GPWG is supported by the UK Natural Environment Research Council’s QUEST (Quantifying Uncertainty in the Earth System) programme. Data compilation and analysis were supported by the QUEST-Deglaciation project (M.J.P., S.P.H.) and by the US National Science Foundation Paleoclimatology (P.J.B.) and Geography and Regional Science programs (P.J.B. and J.R.M.). We thank our colleagues who have made these analyses possible through their contributions to the International Multiproxy Paleofire Database and the Global Charcoal Database.

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Affiliations

  1. Department of Geography, University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon 97403, USA

    • J. R. Marlon
    • , P. J. Bartlein
    •  & D. G. Gavin
  2. Centre for Bio-Archaeology and Ecology (UMR5059 CNRS/UM2/EPHE), Institut de Botanique, F-34090 Montpellier, France

    • C. Carcaillet
  3. School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1SS, UK

    • S. P. Harrison
  4. Department of Earth Sciences, Montana State University, Bozeman, Montana 59717, USA

    • P. E. Higuera
  5. Climate and Environmental Physics, Physics Institute and Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Bern, CH-3012 Bern, Switzerland

    • F. Joos
  6. Utah Museum of Natural History, Department of Geography, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah 84112, USA

    • M. J. Power
  7. QUEST, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1RJ, UK

    • I. C. Prentice

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Contributions

S.P.H. proposed the idea of a 2000 year synthesis. J.R.M, M.J.P., P.J.B., F.J. and S.P.H. compiled the data. P.J.B. carried out the analyses with assistance from P.E.H., D.G.G. and J.R.M. All authors contributed to writing the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to J. R. Marlon.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo313

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