How has the evolution of plants been shaped by fire?
Dr Claire Belcher
We spoke to Claire about her research into 65 million year old asteroid impacts and how we can inspire more women to get involved in science.
Claire is a Senior Lecturer in Earth Systems Science specialising in the study of natural fires.
What is your current research about?
My current work focuses on how the evolution of plants has shaped fire, how changes in fire shape ecosystems and how fire interacts with the atmosphere.
I work in the ancient past, looking at how the evolution of plants and their interaction with fire would have changed the long term history of our planet.
I also look at how forest fires interact with the earth system - how they influence the whole landscape, the atmosphere - even the ocean.
How did you get into this field of science?
I was always interested in rocks – when I was very young I was fascinated by volcanoes, which is a strange thing for a small girl to be fascinated by! I liked ballet and I liked volcanoes which was a strange dichotomy.
I did a geology degree and a geology / palaeontology masters and became interested in the mass extinction event that caused the dinosaurs to die out 65 million years ago - it’s a very interesting period in Earth’s history.
After my masters, a PhD came up looking at whether the asteroid that hit the earth at that time could have ignited fires that spread across the globe and if this could be implicated in the extinction of the dinosaurs.
That’s how I moved onto fire and I’ve been very interested ever since!
During my PhD I travelled from New Mexico (the asteroids hit the Earth just south of there in Mexico) to Canada looking for evidence of the fires.
We found evidence of frequent wildfires during the period before the asteroid hit but at the time the asteroid hit we didn’t see a huge increase in fossil charcoal. If the whole world was on fire you’d expect there to be a lot more.
Our conclusion was that it probably didn’t ignite globally extensive fires; the whole planet wasn’t burning - as has been suggested.
Whether people believe this I don’t know; they want to believe the catastrophic scenarios to explain the extinctions it’s quite persuasive but there are other ways to explain it.
We did some work last year to mimic the asteroid impact and the heat it might have delivered, to see if it could ignite vegetation, we’re still working on that so there may be more to come on that story...
Can you tell me more about your TEDx talk?
I’ve found the TED talk really hard; I wanted to pick something people wouldn’t know about wildfires - I’m going to be talking about how fires help control the amount of oxygen in our atmosphere.
Wildfires are in the news a lot and people generally think of them as very bad things, but they do a lot of good for our planet too. Hopefully I’ll be able to get that across.
I did a survey for the TED talk asking people: “What’s the first word that comes into your head when we talk about fires? “
For most people the word is ‘danger’, ‘devastation’ or ‘destruction’ but when I asked the same people more in depth questions like ‘do ecosystems need fires?’ everybody says yes.
It showed me that the public know quite a lot about fires; when you think about it you know they are a necessary force even though they can be potentially devastating.
What new insights would you like people to take away with them?
I want people to understand that fires are a positive thing as well as a bad thing.
Records from the last 30 years suggest that fire activity is increasing and this may be to do with global warming.
We need to manage this in a way that works with the natural balance of our planet because otherwise we might disrupt the natural relationship between fires and Earth system processes that keep our planet habitable.
Do wildfires have natural cycles, like the climate?
We’ve definitely had cycles driven by changes in atmospheric oxygen –more atmospheric oxygen means more fires; global warming events have also changed the cycles.
A warm climate can create some areas with more droughts and some areas with more moisture; drought and moisture both affect fire cycles. Climate change also influences plants, the fuel for fires. There’s no doubt that forest fires have changed - there have been periods when there have been more and fewer fires, this will continue to happen, whether we are here or not.
What’s not clear about our current conundrum is how much is due to natural cycles and how much is due to land mismanagement. A lot of forest fires in the Amazon are caused by us clearing land; they’re not a major natural feature of this ecosystem unlike savannah ecosystems – which rely on frequent wildfires.
The question we need to answer as fire scientists is are the driving forces changing fire occurrence today related to climate change, vegetation change or man-made changes?
You were named as one of the University’s ‘inspiring women’, why do you think they chose you?
That’s a really hard question!
I think they thought that I’m an inspirational scientist because I’m quite driven. I’ve had quite a progressive attitude towards my research area and I’ve been quite innovative.
How can we encourage women to pursue science roles?
I think that just having more women in science in the first place will encourage other women to be in science.
It’s important to make being a scientist obtainable and all people should be represented, regardless of disability, ethnic background, social status or gender; this will foster others to think they can make it too.
What are your research ambitions?
I have recently started an EU-funded project looking at the evolution of plants and how they changed fire.
I’m building a research team and finalising the set-up of my lab. This will lead to more questions for us to answer - I could speculate about what these might be but I really need to knuckle down and see what we find!