Boron isotopes and FTIR spectroscopy to identify past high severity fires

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Bushfires have played a crucial role in shaping the landscape and biodiversity for millennia. As fire regimes continue to alter with climate change, greater understanding becomes critical in mediating future events. Existing records are largely historically limited or do not accurately identify fire severity; therefore, there is a need to develop new proxies that can extend our fire records significantly. Here, we test whether changes in carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) content, boron (B) isotopes and Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) spectra in sediment deposits can identify past fire events. To achieve this, we investigated sediments deposited in small order creek beds of the Upper Nepean Catchment in southeastern Australia. In each deposit, layers associated with past fire events were independently identified based on visual inspection of higher charcoal abundance. Radiocarbon dating of charcoal fragments was used to approximate the age of the fire events. Neither C and N abundances nor C/N ratios show association with charcoal-rich layers, suggesting they are not useful proxies to identify past fires. Conversely, FTIR spectra show increased aromatic/aliphatic ratios in sediment layers recording past fire events. This observation suggests that those fires were hot enough to reduce long-chain aliphatic compounds to more temperature- and decomposition-resistant aromatics. In each deposit, an increase in δ11B by 2–7 ‰ is associated with charcoal-rich sediment layers. Leaves and fine branches, which burn only during high severity fires, are enriched in 11B, possibly causing the increase in the δ11B value of the sediment clay size fraction. These results suggest that, even in these small order creek beds which are typically transient environments, both FTIR spectra and B isotopes are potentially useful proxies to identify past fire events.

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Australian Research Council



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