Abstract

Theoretical models suggest that atmospheric oxygen reached concentrations as high as 35% O2 during the past 550 m.y. Previous burning experiments using strips of paper have challenged this idea, concluding that ancient wildfires would have decimated plant life if O2 significantly exceeded its present level of 21%. New thermochemistry and flame-spread experiments using natural fuels contradict these results and indicate that sustained burning of forest fuels at moisture contents common to living plants does not occur between 21% and 35% O2. Therefore, the fires under atmospheres with high oxygen concentrations would not have prevented the persistence of plant communities. Times of high O2 also agree with observations of concurrent fire-resistant plant morphology, large insects, and high concentrations of fossil charcoal.

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