Fire and ecosystem change in the Arctic across the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum

Elizabeth H. Denis, Nikolai Pedentchouk, Stefan Schouten, Mark Pagani, Katherine H. Freeman

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Fire has been an important component of ecosystems on a range of spatial and temporal scales. Fire can affect vegetation distribution, the carbon cycle, and climate. The relationship between climate and fire is complex, in large part because of a key role of vegetation type. Here, we evaluate regional scale fire–climate relationships during a past global warming event, the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), in order to understand how vegetation influenced the links between climate and fire occurrence in the Arctic region. To document concurrent changes in climate, vegetation, and fire occurrence, we evaluated biomarkers, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), terpenoids, and alkanes, from the PETM interval at a marine depositional site (IODP site 302, the Lomonosov Ridge) in the Arctic Ocean.

Biomarker, fossil, and isotope evidence from site 302 indicates that terrestrial vegetation changed during the PETM. The abundance of the C29n-alkanes, pollen, and the ratio of leaf-wax n-alkanes relative to diterpenoids all indicate that proportional contributions from angiosperm vegetation increased relative to that from gymnosperms. These changes accompanied increased moisture transport to the Arctic and higher temperatures, as recorded by previously published proxy records. We find that PAH abundances were elevated relative to total plant biomarkers throughout the PETM, and suggest that fire occurrence increased relative to plant productivity. The fact that fire frequency or prevalence may have increased during wetter Arctic conditions suggests that changes in fire occurrence were not a simple function of aridity, as is commonly conceived. Instead, we suggest that the climate-driven ecological shift to angiosperm-dominated vegetation was what led to increased fire occurrence. Potential increases in terrestrial plant biomass that arose from warm, wet, and high CO2 conditions were possibly attenuated by biomass burning associated with compositional changes in the plant community.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)149–156
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
Early online date4 Apr 2017
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2017


  • Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM)
  • polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH)
  • fire
  • angiosperms
  • organic carbon
  • Arctic Oscillation

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