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POSTPONED - GSL Public Lecture: Quantifying the Pyrocene - how important is fire to life on Earth?

25 March 2020
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The Geological Society, Burlington House
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Please note that after careful consideration this event has been postponed until 2021 due to the public health risk posed by the coronavirus. The date for the rescheduled lecture is to be confirmed.

Fire and vegetation have a dual interaction with each other, whilst also both influencing the environment and atmosphere. For example, fire regimes are themselves controlled by atmospheric conditions, atmospheric composition, climate and the type of vegetation.

The effects of fires (and the products and emissions they generate) influence biogeochemical cycles and long-term Earth system processes both through their impacts on nutrient cycles and by altering the composition and distribution of biomes. Fire is more than a simple agent of disturbance and has a multitude of complex feedbacks.

Wildfires have shaped our ecosystems and Earth system processes for some 420 million years. For example, the presence of and changes in fire frequency and behaviour on evolutionary timescales has influenced the physiological traits of plants such that many ecologists have interpreted them as adaptations to fire.

For example, serotiny in the Pine lineage is believed to have evolved millions of years ago in the Late Cretaceous period, where wildfires were both frequent and intense. Such traits seemingly continue to allow some plants to succeed in fire-prone areas.

However, humans have entirely altered ignition patterns. With some 95% of fires being started by man, we have altered the connectivity of fuels in landscapes, species composition and fuel structure. Yet we have limited understanding of the extent to which we have disrupted fire feedbacks to the Earth system. This is largely because we have not yet properly understood what natural feedbacks fire has had on our planet throughout its history.

In this talk, Claire will explore some of the critical history of fire, and some of the processes that fire appears to regulate, in order to pose the question: are fires a critical resource that secures the long-term balance of the Earth system that keeps our planet habitable to man?


Claire Belcher, University of Exeter

Claire Belcher is a Professor of Wildland Fire and Director of The University of Exeter wildFIRE Lab. She graduated from Royal Holloway University of London with a degree in Geology in 2000. She then undertook an MSc in Micropalaeontology at University College London, graduating in 2001 before returning to Royal Holloway to undertake her PhD. She completed her PhD in 2005, entitled “Assessing the evidence for extensive wildfires at the Cretaceous-Tertiary Boundary” and has continued to build on this fiery start ever since. 

Claire has led several multi-million-pound research grants, which have funded her unique experimental wildfire laboratory where she and her team seek to understand the necessity of fire's role in regulating the Earth system, how fire has interacted with land plants over millions years, through to being part of a team building the components for a Fire Danger Rating System for the UK, and a large international team working on peat fires and sustainable land management practices in Borneo.

Claire works with local communities, UK land managers such as the RSPC, National Trust, Forestry England, The Forestry Commission, UK Firewise and the Government office of science and technology. She is currently part of the team of researchers advising the Government via the 3rd Climate Change Risk Assessment, where she contributes to the understanding of risk of wildfires to the UK along with a team of wildfire researchers.


The Geological Society
Burlington House


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