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Good Reads  History & Other Humanities  Environmental History

Burning Planet The Story of Fire Through Time

By: Andrew C Scott(Author)
244 pages, 13 plates with b/w photos; 62 b/w photos and b/w illustrations
Burning Planet uncovers the planetary deep history of fire – you will never look at charcoal the same again.
Burning Planet
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Average customer review
  • Burning Planet ISBN: 9780198734840 Hardback Mar 2018 Usually dispatched within 1 week
Price: £19.99
About this book Contents Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

Raging wildfires have devastated vast areas of California and Australia in recent years, and predictions are that we will see more of the same in coming years, as a result of climate change. But this is nothing new. Since the dawn of life on land, large-scale fires have played their part in shaping life on Earth.

Andrew Scott tells the whole story of fire's impact on our planet's atmosphere, climate, vegetation, ecology, and the evolution of plant and animal life. It has caused mass extinctions, and it has propelled the spread of flowering plants.

The exciting evidence we can now draw on has been preserved in fossilized charcoal, found in rocks hundreds of millions of years old, from all over the world. These reveal incredibly fine details of prehistoric plants, and tell us about climates from deep in earth's history. They also give us insight into how early hominids and humans tamed fire and used it.

Looking at the impact of wildfires in our own time, Scott also looks forward to how we might better manage them in future, as climate change has an increasing effect on our world.



1: Introducing fire - the shaper of Earth and life
2: Getting dirty - charcoal and what it can tell us
3: Kindling
4: The rise, fall and rise of fire
5: Fire, flowers and dinosaurs
6: Fire and the coming of the modern world
7: Prometheus
8: The archaeology of fire
9: The future of fire


Customer Reviews (1)

  • Technical in places, but interesting
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 14 Nov 2019 Written for Hardback

    Fire is a force of nature that both fascinates and frightens. Large wildfires around the world seem to be on the rise and are a cause of concern due to the risk to lives and property. But fire also is an essential part of the workings of our planet that pre-dates humans by a long time. How long? For the last 40 years, geologist and palaeobotanist Andrew C. Scott has researched plant remains in the fossil record that have been preserved by fire in the form of fossil charcoal. In Burning Planet, he takes you on a 400-million-year deep-history tour of fire and how it has shaped our planet.

    Scott kicks off with an introduction to how we measure wildfires on a global scale, how satellite imagery has transformed our understanding of the scale and frequency of it, what different types of wildfire exist and what their sometimes unexpected aftermath is, and how plants deal with, and in some cases have evolved to take advantage of, fire. But we are here for the charcoal. Scott describes how it is formed, and how geologists, not without lengthy debate, finally realised that certain mineral deposits are actually fossilised charcoal. The level of preservation of microscopic details that are revealed once you put this under the microscope is astounding. The black-and-white plate section contains some amazing images of fossilised leaves and flowers (flowers!), hundreds of millions of years old, that have been preserved in exquisite detail. To the point that you can count leave pores, and, based on their density and comparison to contemporary plants, reconstruct CO2 levels in our deep past.

    Wildfire requires fuel (usually vegetation), oxygen and a spark. It was therefore only once land plants evolved from 420 million years ago onwards that wildfires started occurring. Over this long time span atmospheric oxygen levels also varied. Nowadays our atmosphere contains 21% oxygen, but that wasn’t always the case, and quite some pages are spent on the various attempts at reconstructing historical oxygen levels over time.

    Scott then walks the reader through the evidence for fire in different geological periods, going from deep time to the present. This section gets technical at times as Scott goes into the minutiae here. But it is interesting to see how there were periods where fossil charcoal suggests fires were frequent, while during other periods very little fossil charcoal is recovered. Some of this seems to have been due to periods of low atmospheric oxygen levels, whereas at other times mass extinctions decimated vegetation to such an extent there was not much left to burn.

    Scott puts to rest one hypothesis that keeps being refloated; the idea that the meteorite impact that finished off the dinosaurs (see Alvarez’s T. rex and the Crater of Doom) also led to a global conflagration. It sure sounds dramatic: a massive meteorite impact followed by an intense global inferno. But fossil charcoal does not support this idea, with charcoal being found before, during and after the impact layer, and there being no qualitative differences in the charcoal indicative of higher temperatures.

    Of course, any book dealing with the history of fire will have to talk about fire in human evolution. Probably its most transformative impact was that is allowed us to cook food. In Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, Richard Wrangham argued that this allowed for the evolutionary development of larger brains. But Scott also walks us through some other archaeological evidence for use of fire. As we get closer to the present, there are other proxies and sources we can use, such as fire scars visible when cutting down trees and looking at their tree rings. This has allowed the reconstruction of a finer-grained picture of the recent history of fire.

    Scott ends with a discussion of fire management. Without going into too much detail or prescribing management strategies, he highlights how there are arguments for and against trying to manage and prevent wildfire. Especially in the US there is plenty of evidence to suggest that decades of preventative measures have increased the amount of dead, flammable plant material in forests. Once wildfires do occur, as they ultimately must, they burn far more intensely and destructively. And then there is the question, as with the risk of flooding, whether we should really be building houses where we are building them. Let alone whether we should be putting the lives of firemen at risk when they are called out to such areas.

    Throughout, the book is illustrated with photos and graphs. I already mentioned the black-and-white plate section, but there is also a very nice colour plate section with some striking images. Some of the illustrations in the main body of the text are graphs that have been reproduced from papers and are fairly technical. They are typical of the kinds of deep-time / stratigraphy illustrations in this discipline. Although some annotations are provided, I can see readers not familiar with these puzzling over them for a bit.

    Scott has previously contributed chapters on fire in deep history to textbooks such as Fire Phenomena and the Earth System: An Interdisciplinary Guide to Fire Science and more recently Fire on Earth: An Introduction. Burning Planet is however the first book-length treatment exclusively on this topic. Even if the narrative gets a bit technical in places, Scott’s dedication to the subject and the history he reconstructs here are amazing. If you have any interest in deep history and palaeontology this book is easy to recommend and will add an extra perspective on what you might already know.
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Andrew Scott is Emeritus Professor of Geology and a Leverhulme Emeritus Fellow at Royal Holloway, University of London. He has co-authored and edited several academic books on fire, most recently Fire on Earth: An Introduction (Wiley-Blackwell, 2014), with David M. J. S. Bowman, William J. Bond, Stephen J. Pyne, and Martin E. Alexander. He appears regularly on radio and television science programmes.

By: Andrew C Scott(Author)
244 pages, 13 plates with b/w photos; 62 b/w photos and b/w illustrations
Burning Planet uncovers the planetary deep history of fire – you will never look at charcoal the same again.
Media reviews

"Wildfire, that force of nature that terrifies us all, has played a vital role in the evolution of life and environments on Earth for million of years. Andrew Scott tells a fascinating personal story of his research into charcoal and the history of fire through geological time – and how fire will, no doubt, play a major role in our future warm world."
– Dame Jane Francis, British Antarctic Survey

"Andrew Scott's career-long obsession with fire has paid dividends. His detailed and entertaining book gives us a 'no-stone-unturned' account of the natural history of fire. It takes us on an extraordinary journey from fires on heathlands to the working of the Earth system with remarkable implications for life on the planet."
– David Beerling, author of The Emerald Planet

"This deep time perspective shows that fire has always been with us, and raises the question about how we should live with it in the future."
– Sir Peter Crane FRS, President, Oak Spring Garden Foundation and Former Director of the Royal Botanic Garden Kew

"Scott shows how the occurrence of fire through Earth history provides a new lens through which to understand the evolution of plants, animals, landscapes and climate changes through the last 450 million years, and to consider possible effects on human welfare. I recommend it to anyone curious about Earth history."
– Jennifer A. Clack, FRS, Professor Emeritus of Vertebrate Palaeontology, Cambridge University

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