Paper No. 9-8
Presentation Time: 10:15 AM
POSSIBLE LINKAGE BETWEEN SUPERNOVAE, INCREASED TERRESTRIAL LIGHTNING, AND WILDFIRE ACTIVITY IN THE LATE MIOCENE AND EARLY PLEISTOCENE
Radioisotopes from deep-sea deposits show that Earth was affected by nearby supernovae about 2.5 and 8 million years ago. Recent modelling work shows that high-energy particles from these events resulted in greatly enhanced ionization of the troposphere. This could have led to an increase in wildfires via more frequent lightning. Here we show that published data on global fire activity from charcoal records reveal a marked increase in wildfires around the times of the supernova explosions. We use a dynamic global vegetation model to assess the impact of increased lightning frequency on vegetation patterns, finding a patchy global decrease in tree cover. Regionally, vegetation changes are particularly pronounced in western North America, the Mediterranean, Central Asia, Northern Indochina, subtropical South America, Africa and Australia, and notably East Africa, in agreement with empirical evidence for a global shift towards savannas during the Pleistocene. Our results demonstrate that moderately nearby supernovae have the potential to affect life on Earth even if they are too distant to initiate a mass extinction. Finally, we note that the shift from forest to savannah biomes in the East African Rift Valley region has been tentatively linked to hominin evolution in this region.