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Wildfire clues uncovered in ancient sand dunes

12 May 2023

Valuable new information about the future risk of wildfires has been discovered in Australian sand dunes where researchers have uncovered the remnants of fires lit thousands of years ago.


University of Canterbury (UC) School of Earth and Environment PhD graduate Nicholas Patton working at the Cooloola Sand Mass in Queensland, Australia with UC Geological Sciences PhD student Johanna Hanson.

An international research team led by Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury (UC) Earth and Environment PhD graduate Nicholas Patton and UC School of Earth and Environment Professor Jamie Shulmeister has studied the sand dunes at the Cooloola Sand Mass in Queensland, an extremely fire-prone landscape.

Dr Patton, now a postdoctoral researcher at the Desert Research Institute in Nevada, the United States, says charcoal deposits uncovered in sand dunes at Cooloola can be used to reconstruct reliable fire histories going back thousands of years. The four sand dunes date back 12,000 years and reveal three major periods of fire activity.

Credit: Erin Atkinson, Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service The Thannae Fire that severely burnt the Southeast Queensland dune fields in 2018 during the Black Summer Bushfires. (photo credit: Erin Atkinson, Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service).

“Charcoal has accumulated at the foot of a dune after a fire and been gradually buried by layers of sand, creating a time-capsule effect,” Dr Patton says. “These sediments can be dated using radiocarbon dating, providing an accurate record of past fires in the area.”

Most environmental records of fires have typically been found in places that are very wet, such as bogs and small lakes. “As a result, many areas with high fire risk, such as parts of Australia, California and the Mediterranean, have poorly understood natural fire regimes.”

Professor Shulmeister says the new research, published this week in the journal Quaternary Researchis critical because the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-2020 in Australia highlighted that fires are possible on much larger scales and greater intensities than had previously been imagined.

“Here in New Zealand, recent dangerous wildfires at Lake Ohau and in Northland have demonstrated that our bush is also more susceptible to uncontrolled burning.  Understanding how, why and when these fires might occur is important for the future management of wildfire risk, particularly in areas such as Central Otago that have a dry climate and a high potential fire risk.”

Dr Patton says the work is ground-breaking in demonstrating that sand dunes can act as archives for fire history. “We believe our approach could be applied to dunes in arid and semi-arid regions and could revolutionise our understanding of past fires, modern fire risk and future fire management.”

The study is a collaboration between researchers at Lincoln University, the University of Queensland, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation and Utah State University in the United States.

Sand dune

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