Fires regularly ravaged Antarctica

Antarctica’s frozen landscapes are a silent realm of ice. But millions of years ago, fires regularly ravaged the continent. That was the conclusion reached by the authors of a new study that found evidence of regular fires about 75 million years ago.

The new study uses fossilized charcoal from James Ross Island near the northeastern tip of the continent. During the Cretaceous period, when dinosaurs roamed the planet, Antarctica was covered by a temperate rainforest with a diverse array of plants and trees, including conifers and angiosperms, a category covering about 300,000 species of flowering plants.

Tiny fragments of fossilized charcoal found on James Ross Island are evidence that these plants burned during forest fires.

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

This discovery adds further evidence to the theory that Antarctica, both its islands and the main continent, was no stranger to wildfires.

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

Although regular fires were the norm for other parts of the world during the Cretaceous, the study shows that all of Antarctica was not immune to warm-age wildfires.

The Cretaceous period is “a well-known global period of ” severe fires,” the study authors write. “Natural wildfires – caused by lightning strikes, meteorites and volcanic activity – were a regular occurrence throughout geologic time,” including on the continent now known for its icy surface.

Back in 2020, an expedition drilling the seafloor near the South Pole discovered the root network of an ancient forest. This indicates surprisingly high temperatures in Antarctica during the Cretaceous period and the existence of a rich temperate rainforest just 900 kilometers from the pole.

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