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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Ancient climate change is a burning issue

As published this month in Nature Geoscience, forest wildfires that took place in Greenland millions of years ago are helping scientists to predict the effects of climate change more accurately. Claire Belcher (UCD), who led the work, and colleagues studied 200 million-year-old fossils – which contain remains of dead and burnt plants – have shown that a change in vegetation, along with warmer temperatures and more frequent storms, led to a five-fold increase in natural wildfires in East Greenland at this time. Their study will help scientists to broaden their understanding of past Earth climates and give researchers fresh insight to improve models of the possible effects of future climate change.

Millions of years ago in East Greenland, warming climate and high levels of CO2 in the atmosphere caused plants to evolve from having thick to narrow leaves, which helped prevent them from losing water. Laboratory experiments (in the BRE Centre for Fire Safety Engineering) have shown plants of this shape to be more flammable, and therefore prone to wildfires. The study sheds light on how climate-driven changes in vegetation can cause increases in the flammability of plants. This research may help understanding of whether or not plant life could become more flammable based on global warming estimates.

The work, "in a truly innovative test of their hypothesis, used a Fire Propagation Apparatus calorimeter to test the flammability of modern plant analogues to the Triassic and Jurassic vegetation"

 A plant sample of Monkey puzzle being tested for fire behaviour in the Flame Propagation Apparatus calorimeter

The joint research between Fire engineers at the University of Edinburgh and Earth scientists at University College Dublin, the University of Oxford and the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, was funded by EU Marie Curie and the University of Edinburgh’s BRE Centre for Fire Safety Engineering and published in Nature Geoscience. Their work also made it onto the front cover (see illustration bellow).

Cover of the Nature Geoscience issue of June 2010 showing a scientific illustration of Greenland's vegetation 200 Myr ago.

Dr Claire Belcher, of University College Dublin, said:
"We wanted to test a theory that says if atmospheric CO2 doubles, forest fires in North America may increase by 44 per cent. We tested this by studying how ancient plants and fire changed in the past and used modern experiments on living plants – much like those that grew 200 million years ago – to show that under these conditions, plants became more flammable".

Dr Guillermo Rein, co-author of the work, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Engineering, said:
"This research brought together scientists from very different backgrounds, and doing so has given us insights into ancient wildfires that we might otherwise not have had. This is the first time our cutting-edge flammability technology has been applied to test geoscience hypothesis and highlights how new ideas can be formed when scientists from very different backgrounds meet"..

For more information please contact:
Dr Claire Belcher, belchercm (at) and see her website

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Conference summaries

Conference season has kicked off. Here are my summaries so far.

Fire and Explosion Hazards
Rory Hadden, Nicolas Bal, Freddy Jervis, Albert Simeoni and briefly Guillermo Rein and Ricky Carvel attended the 6th Fire and Explosion Hazards conference in Leeds. The conference was well attended by academia as well as industry.

As usual, the topics covered many aspects of fire with a lot of emphasis on the best methods for extracting material parameters from experiments for use in fire models and the subsequent use of the newly developed FireFOAM code. Plenary lectures on the Buncefield explosion and the dynamics of forest fires related fire sciences to the real world and worked as a good basis for the conference.

An excellent banquet was provided in the rather unique Royal Armouries Museum.

European Geosciences Union
A conference on a different scale from anything in fire; 10 000 delegates descended on Vienna from all corners of the globe. I attended with fire group collaborator Claire Belcher. The conference programme was very dense including everything from climate change to sedimentology. It was interesting to see fire from the point of view of a geoscientist – these sessions were devoted mainly to satellite detection of fires and the role of fire in the earth system. This is fascinating work however, I am certain more could be achieved by raising the profile of fire science in this area and working together with the geoscience community.

2nd International Conference on Coal Fire Research
This brief three day conference in Berlin was the second meeting of the coal fire community under the umbrella of the Sino-German coal fire project. As a relative outsider to the community, I found them inviting and willing to discuss new ideas. Talks covered the whole range of coal fire topics from fundamental fire dynamics to modelling to fire fighting with many interesting case studies in between. The conference also allowed me to meet with the editors of Coal and Peat Fires: A Global Perspective. It seems that over the 6 years that the community has been active, a great deal has been achieved in understanding these fires however, they still remain a challenging and diverse area of study.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Congratulations to Dr Colella for his PhD thesis defense

Francesco Colella successfully defended his PhD thesis on the 21st of May 2010 at Politecnico di Torino, Italy. The thesis title is "Multiscale Analysis of Tunnel Ventilation Flows and Fires" and she was supervised by Prof. Romano Borchiellini and Dr Vittorio Verda at Politecnico di Torino, and by Guillermo Rein and Prof Jose Torero at the University of Edinburgh.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Lessells Travel Scholarship for Sam Grindrod

Congratulations to BRE Trust PhD student Sam Grindrod who has been awarded 2010 J M Lessells Travel Scholarship from the The Royal Society of Edinburgh.

The funding (£8,750) is for Sam to travel to Lund University, Sweden for seven months, where he will be collaborating on project M*E*T*R*O, mainly on the medium-scale tunnel fire experiments.