EGU General Assembly 2020
© Author(s) 2020. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

What paleofire records can say about the present and future of fire on Earth

Jennifer Marlon1, Anne-Laure Daniau2, Patrick Bartlein3, and Andry Rajaoberison1
Jennifer Marlon et al.
  • 1Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, New Haven, CT, United States of America (
  • 2Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Université Bordeaux 1, F-33400 Talence, France (
  • 3University of Oregon, Department of Geography, Eugene, OR, United States of America (

Sedimentary charcoal records typically provide information about variations in wildfire activity over thousands of years, and a few even span millions of years. Such long, continuous measurements of combustion products offer a rare opportunity to understand the response of fire to both rapid and gradual climate forcings, whether from human-caused global warming, volcanic activity, atmosphere-ocean circulation changes, or Milankovitch cycles. Here we use paleofire records from the Global Charcoal Database to demonstrate the dynamic nature of wildfire activity in response to varied forcings, particularly the role that relatively small temperature and precipitation shifts have on patterns of burning across space and time. Paleodata from areas currently experiencing severe wildfires are also examined in order to provide context for events that appear unprecedented in modern times.

How to cite: Marlon, J., Daniau, A.-L., Bartlein, P., and Rajaoberison, A.: What paleofire records can say about the present and future of fire on Earth, EGU General Assembly 2020, Online, 4–8 May 2020, EGU2020-22123,, 2020

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Presentation version 1 – uploaded on 06 May 2020
  • CC1: Comment on EGU2020-22123, Jessie Woodbridge, 06 May 2020

    Thanks for the really interesting presentation slides. I was wondering if there are there tried and tested examples where modern land owners / managers in wildfire prone regions have been informed by palaeo-fire scientists and how they can turn long-term records into information that is useful for making management decisions? Thanks!

  • AC1: Examples where paleoecological data has informed land management, J.R. Marlon, 06 May 2020

    Hi Jessie, good question. There are undoubtedly many examples of this (see the Fire Learning Network - ) -- but they would be difficult to carefully document without social science (i.e., interviewing land managers who have been exposed to paleoecological data) because land managers necessarily must employ diverse and varied sources of information to make any single specific decision. I can’t imagine a case where paleofire information would dominate such decisions. That said, there is a tremendous amount to be gained by doing outreach and talking with conservationists and managers—and many have and do--about the underlying principles of fire ecology that are revealed through paleodata. For example, with local paleoecological data one can see that in their own landscape, their forests or grasslands may have evolved with fire, that fire has given many benefits such as nutrient cycling, that existing local plant communities may only be a century or 3000 years old, and that fire may have been much more or much less frequent and important than it is today just 100 years ago in that area. Measuring the impact that such information might have on a specific decision is exceedingly difficult, but that doesn’t mean it is not vitally important for providing context to current changes and for helping managers envision what future change may look like. Paleo data can help show the historical range of variability in fire when there are good records available, and that can be enormously mind-opening to land managers who may have never considered the long-term history of their land or had real data about that land. Also, relatedly, paleofire research can be used to inform air pollution management efforts, and I was just invited to do that as a science advisor for the California Air Resources Board. HTH.

    • CC2: Reply to AC1, Jessie Woodbridge, 06 May 2020

      Dear Jen. Many thanks for your reply. That's really informative and useful. Quite a lot of food for tought! Good luck with your science advisory role. 

      Best wishes, Jessie