Fires regularly ravaged Antarctica

antarctica forest, Antarctica ancient rainforest, antarctica rainforest
Antarctica rainforests. Picture via Youtube video

Antarctica’s frozen landscapes are the epitome of ice. But millions of years ago, fire regularly ravaged the continent. That’s the conclusion of new research that found evidence of regular fires about 75 million years ago.

The new research draws on fossilized charcoal from James Ross Island off the continent’s northeastern tip. During the Cretaceous period, when dinosaurs roamed the planet, Antarctica was covered by a temperate rainforest with a diverse set of plants and trees including conifers and angiosperms, a category that covers about 300,000 species of flowering plants.

antarctica forest, Antarctica ancient rainforest, antarctica rainforest
Location of the Antarctic Peninsula and James Ross Island. (c) Geological map of the north-east portion of James Ross Island, showing the geographic location of the studied area with a star.

Tiny fragments of fossilized charcoal unearthed on James Ross Island provides evidence that those plants burned in wildfires.

Electron microscopes revealed the burned wood belonged to ancient conifers called Araucariaceae.

Fossilized charcoal shows once-temperate Antarctica was often hit by wildfires, antarctica forest, Antarctica ancient rainforest, antarctica rainforest
Fossilized charcoal shows once-temperate Antarctica was often hit by wildfires

The discovery adds more evidence to the theory that Antarctica — both its islands and the main continent — was no stranger to wildfire.

At the time, the continent now known as Antarctica was part of Gondwana, a supercontinent in the Southern Hemisphere that began breaking up into today’s more recognizable continents about 170 million years ago.

antarctica forest, Antarctica ancient rainforest, antarctica rainforest
Reconstruction of palaeo-wildfires in Antarctica during the Cretaceous. Illustration by Maurilio Oliveira / National Museum, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro

Although regular blazes were the norm for other parts of the world during the Cretaceous Period, the study suggests the entirety of Antarctica was anything but immune to the warm era’s wildfires.

The Cretaceous is a “well-known global ‘high fire’ period,” they write. “The natural forest fire — caused by lightning strikes, fireballs, sparks and volcanic activity — was a regular phenomenon throughout geological time,” including in a continent that is known for its iciness today.

Back in 2020, an expedition drilling into the sea-floor near the South Pole has discovered the root network of an ancient forest. It reveals surprisingly high temperatures in the Antarctic during the Cretaceous period, and the existence of a rich, temperate rainforest just 900km from the Pole.

While Antarctica geothermal heat is responsible for glacier melting, the Sahara, was awashed with mighty rivers.

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  1. I love that this topic needed an artist’s conception of the events: “And here’s what fire looked like back in the Cretaceous!”

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