Early Paleogene wildfires in peat-forming environments at Schöningen, Germany

Brittany E. Robson*, Margaret E. Collinson, Walter Riegel, Volker Wilde, Andrew C. Scott, Richard D. Pancost

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

34 Citations (Scopus)
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Wildfire activity in early Paleogene greenhouse conditions can be used as an analogue to gauge the effect of future warming trends on wildfire in the current climate system. Inertinite (fossil charcoal in coal) from 11 autochthonous early Paleogene lignite seams from the Schöningen mine (Germany) was quantified using macerations, in situ pillars and industry standard crushed samples. A new three transect method was developed to quantify in situ charcoal. The combination of in situ pillars and crushed samples accounts for temporal and spatial variation in charcoal through a stratigraphically oriented pillar, whilst maintaining comparability with industry standards and previous work. Charcoal occurs as a range of randomly distributed particle sizes, indicating that fires were burning locally in the Schöningen peat-forming environment and in the surrounding areas, but according to petrological data, not in an episodic or periodic pattern. Although charcoal abundance is low (relative to previous high fire worlds such as the Cretaceous), three quantitative and semi-quantitative methods show increased wildfire activity (relative to the modern world) in the warmest parts of the early Paleogene. As atmospheric oxygen levels stabilised to modern values and precipitation and humidity became the main control on wildfire, increased rainfall followed by drier intervals would have created an environment rich in dry fuel in which wildfires could easily propagate if humidity was low enough. In the later part of the Early Eocene (Ypresian) charcoal abundance fell to levels similar to those found in modern peats. This indicates that the transition to the modern low fire world occurred within the Early Eocene, earlier than previous records suggest.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)53-62
Number of pages10
JournalPalaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology
Early online date19 Jul 2015
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2015


  • Charcoal
  • Coal
  • EECO
  • Eocene
  • Inertinite
  • Lignite


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