Charcoalified vegetation from the Pennsylvanian of Yorkshire, England: Implications for the interpretation of Carboniferous wildfires

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New data on some fossil charcoal deposits from the British Isles is integrated into previous studies to provide an indication of our current understanding of the role of fire on land in the Pennsylvanian and also provide strategies for obtaining new information in the future.
The nature and occurrence of fossil charcoal (often called fusain) in sediments and coals (often described as inertinite/fusinite/semi-fusinite) is the main way that the history of Carboniferous fire has been studied. Fires have been shown to have been common in many Carboniferous ecosystems worldwide around the world, yet we still have little understanding of the details of what , where and how suchthese fires occur or indeedwere, where and how they occurred, or their effects upon both on the local ecosystem as well as onand the Earth System as a whole. Research has demonstrated that detailed scanning electron microscope studies of charcoal residues can provide data on the plants that have been charred by wildfires.
Information on the amount of charcoal in coal globally appears to relate to atmospheric oxygen composition and this shows that throughout the Carboniferous oxygen levels were as high or higher than those of the present day, suggesting that wildfires were more frequent. Interpreting the frequency of fires in different ecosystems remains fraught with difficulty and calculations within peat (coal) systems are at an early stage. The impact of fire on vegetational change as well as the relationship between fire and climate in the Carboniferous remains little studied.
A study of the inertinite (charcoal) distribution within the Low Barnsley Seam in Yorkshire, England indicates that levels remained high throughout much of the 1.8m thick coal seam. A previous palynological study of the seam has demonstrated three repeated successions of vegetational development interpreted as repeated phases of wet to dry mire development (rheotrophic swamp to ombrotrophic bog). Inertinite peaks above 20% background have indicated a minimum of 18 significant large fire events and an analysis of depositional rates suggests a fire return interval of these large fires to be 500 years or less.
A study of charcoalified vegetation from fine-grained clastic sediments from Swillington Brickworks, Yorkshire recovered from bulk maceration of the sediment, that was not evident from bedding surface examination, has demonstrated that some levels contain abundant leaf charcoal, mainly from pteridosperms, in addition to wood charcoal derived from a range of gymnosperms. The charcoalified plants are interpreted as wildfire residues mainly from surface fires that have been transported and deposited on low-lying floodplains.
Original languageEnglish
Article number104540
Number of pages27
JournalReview of Palaeobotany and Palynology
Early online date11 Oct 2021
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2022


  • Pennsylvanian
  • charcoal
  • coal
  • vegetation
  • wildfire
  • climate

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