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Extracting a History of Global Fire Emissions for the Past Millennium From Ice Core Records of Acetylene, Ethane, and Methane


Biomass burning is an important component of the Earth system in terms of global biogeochemistry, atmospheric composition, climate, terrestrial ecology, and land use. This study examines published ice core trace gas measurements of acetylene, ethane, and methane, which have been used as proxies for paleofire emissions. We investigate the consistency of these records for the past 1,000 years in terms of (1) temporal trends in global fire emissions and (2) quantitative estimates for changes in global burning (dry matter burned per year). Three-dimensional transport and box models were used to construct emissions scenarios for the trace gases consistent with each ice core record. Burning histories were inferred from trace gas emissions by accounting for biome-specific emission factors for each trace gas. The temporal trends in fire inferred from the trace gases are in reasonable agreement, with a large decline in biomass burning emissions from the Medieval Period (MP: 1000–1500 CE) to the Little Ice Age (LIA: 1650–1750 CE). However, the three trace gas ice core records do not yield a consistent fire history, even assuming dramatic (and unrealistic) changes in the spatial distribution of fire and biomes. Substantial changes in other factors such as meteorological transport or atmospheric photochemical lifetimes appear to be required to reconcile the trace gas records.

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