Reconstructing Holocene fire history in a southern Appalachian forest using soil charcoal

Authors


  • Corresponding Editor: A. H. Lloyd.

Abstract

Lacking long-term dendrochronological and lake sediment data, little is known regarding the history of fire in southern Appalachian forests through the Holocene. Here we used 82 radiocarbon ages for soil charcoal collected from local depositional sites along a topographic gradient from mixed hardwood (Liriodendron tulipifera and Quercus spp.) to oak–pine (Quercus prinus and Pinus rigida) forest to provide a coarse-grained picture of changes in fire frequency within a 10-ha area during the Holocene. Charcoal ages ranged from 0 to 10 570 yr BP, with a single date older than 4000 yr BP. The data indicate that fires occurred regularly across the study area over the past 4000 yr. Further, such fires were not confined to dry oak–pine dominated ridges, but extended downslope into areas that are today dominated by mesic hardwood forest. Summed probability analysis taking into account radiometric errors suggests that fires became more frequent ∼1000 yr ago, coinciding with the appearance of Woodland Tradition Native Americans in this region. We provide a direct demonstration of relatively frequent fire at the forest stand scale in Appalachian forests over a significant portion of the Holocene. Our results are consistent with the widely held view that fires have become less frequent in this region over the past 250 years. We discuss the difficulties in calculating the inbuilt error associated with estimating actual fire dates from charcoal fragments. But we conclude that such analysis of soil charcoal is a promising approach for reconstructing general trends in fire behavior within forest stands in this region.

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