Examining the effects of climate change and human impacts on a high-resolution, late Holocene paleofire record from South Africa’s winter rainfall zone

Stella G. Mosher, Mitchell J. Power, Lynne J. Quick, Torsten Haberzettl, Thomas Kasper, Kelly L. Kirsten, David R. Braun, J. Tyler Faith

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Fire is central to the Cape Floristic Region’s highly biodiverse and disturbance-adapted Fynbos Biome. However, prehistoric fire regimes, their ecological consequences, and their relationships with large-scale climate drivers and human activities remain poorly understood. Here, we use a high-resolution sedimentary charcoal record from Verlorenvlei, a coastal lake situated on the west coast, to interrogate links between fire, climate, and pastoralism in the Fynbos Biome. Our record has a robust chronology supported by 24 radiocarbon dates and provides a continuous sedimentary sequence spanning the last 4200 years, documenting fire activity before and after the local arrival of pastoralists in the Verlorenvlei area ∼1500 cal years BP. Fire at Verlorenvlei over the last 4200 years is variable, with relatively low activity until ∼2000 cal years BP, after which variable but generally higher fire activity occurs until the highest period of fire activity from ∼1450 – 1800 CE (∼500 – 150 cal years BP). The increase in fire activity ∼2000 years ago corresponds with a shift in the diatom assemblage at Verlorenvlei from marine towards brackish and freshwater species, reflecting increased precipitation derived from a strengthening of the southern westerly winds. The peak in fire activity beginning ∼1450 CE (∼500 cal years BP), near the onset of the Little Ice Age, tracks a second diatom-inferred strengthening of the westerly winds. Other southern hemisphere and Antarctic records further corroborate this increased westerly influence after ∼2000 years. Linear regression modeling on the fire record indicates that moisture availability is the primary driver of fire at Verlorenvlei, with little evidence that human populations influenced fire. Our reconstruction suggests that fire activity at Verlorenvlei is limited by moisture availability and that wetter conditions facilitate increased vegetation (i.e., fuel) and intensified fire at this otherwise fuel-limited site. This work has implications for management and conservation decisions in response to future predictions of a warmer and drier climate along South Africa’s west coast.
Original languageEnglish
Article number100194
Number of pages10
JournalQuaternary Science Advances
Early online date4 May 2024
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2024

Bibliographical note

This is an open access article under the CC BY license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)


This study was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF CNH–S: 1826666). Extraction of the VER14 archive was supported by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and collected as part of the collaborative project ‘Regional Archives for Integrated Investigations’ (RAIN, grant no: 03G0862B). The Geological Society of America and the University of Utah Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program funded student lab opportunities related to this project.


  • Fire history
  • Paleoecology
  • Pastoralism
  • Fynbos
  • Cape Floristic Region


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