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Estimation of inbuilt age in radiocarbon ages of soil charcoal for fire history studies.

Daniel G Gavin


Radiocarbon age determinations of wood charcoal are commonly used to date past forest fire events, even though such ages should be greater than the fire event due to the age of the wood at the time of burning. The difference in the (super 14) C-derived age of charcoal and the time-since-fire (the "inbuilt age") may be considerable in some vegetation types and thus must be estimated before interpreting fire dates. Two methods were used to estimate the potential range of inbuilt age of soil charcoal dated to determine ages of forest fires on the west coast of Vancouver Island (Canada). First, 26 (super 14) C ages on charcoal in surficial soil were compared directly with ages of forest fire determined by tree-ring counts, suggesting inbuilt ages of 0-670 years. Second, a simulation model that uses estimated fuel loads, fuel consumption, charcoal production, and the ages of charred wood (time since wood formation), suggests that the combination of slow growth rates and slow decay rates of certain species can account for inbuilt ages of more than 400 years in this forest type. This level of inbuilt age is large enough such that the actual age of a fire may not occur within the 2sigma confidence interval of a calibrated charcoal (super 14) C age determination, and thus significantly affect the interpretation of fire dates. A method is presented to combine the error of a calibrated (super 14) C age determination with the error due to inbuilt age such that the larger adjusted error encompasses the actual age of the fire.


Clayoquot River Valley;Vancouver Island;forests;fires;simulation;British Columbia;calibration;Canada;Western Canada;errors;tree rings;archaeology;Holocene;soils;Cenozoic;charcoal;Quaternary;wood;C 14;carbon;dates;isotopes;radioactive isotopes;absolute age

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