Wildfires and the formation of sugar-loaf hills

One iconic feature of Rio de Janeiro is Corcovado Mountain, topped by the huge Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue. Another is the Sugar Loaf (Pão de Açúcar) that broods over Botafogo Bay. Each is an inselberg: a loan word from the German for ‘island mountain’. Elsewhere they are known as kopjes (southern Africa), monadnocks (North America) or bornhardts after the German explorer who first described them. But, being on the coast, the Brazilian examples are not typical. Most rise up spectacularly from almost featureless plains, a well-known case being Uluru (Ayers Rock) almost at the centre of Australia. Arid and semi-arid plains of Africa and the Indian subcontinent are liberally dotted with them. So scenically dominant and spectacularly stark, inselbergs are often revered by local people, and have been so for millennia. The only thing that I remember from a desperately boring, but compulsory, first-year course on geomorphology in 1965 is their connection with the ‘cosmogonic egg’: a mythological motif that spans Eurasia, Australia and Africa, signifying that from which the universe hatched. It is perhaps no coincidence that hills in England that suddenly rise from flat land, such as the Wrekin in Shropshire and Malvern Hill in Worcestershire, still host the sport of rolling hard-boiled eggs to celebrate the pagan festival of Eostre (now Easter) that marks the spring rebirth of the land.    

Vista of Rio de Janeiro and its inselbergs (Credit: Leonardo Ferreira Mendes, Creative Commons)

How inselbergs and their surrounding plains formed has long been a hot topic in tropical geomorphology. One theory is that they are especially resistant rocks around which eroding rivers meandered during the formation of peneplains, a variant being that they were surrounded by lines of weakness, such as faults or major joint systems. Another is that they formed by erosion into a deeply but irregularly weathered surface. Then there is L.C. Kings theory of escarpment retreat and, of course, a mixture of processes in different stages, or a unique origin for each inselberg. In effect, there has been no final, widely agreed explanation. But that that may be about to change.

A common element to most inselbergs is their very steep and sometimes vertical flanks. Some even display overhangs at their base. Such potential shelters encouraged local people to camp there and, in response to the awe inspired by the sheer majesty of the looming inselberg, to use them for sacred rites and decoration. That is especially true of Australia, so it is fitting that what may be a breakthrough in understanding inselberg formation should have arisen there. (Buckman, S. et al. 2021. Fire-induced rock spalling as a mechanism of weathering responsible for flared slope and inselberg developmentNature Communications, v. 12, article 2150; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-22451-2). Breaking rock by deliberate use of fire has been done for millennia. For instance, Hannibal is said to have used fire to break down huge fallen boulders that blocked passage for his war elephants as his army advanced on Rome. Fire setting is still used by villagers in South India to spall large flakes of rock from outcrops. It is done with such skill that thin slabs up to 3-4 metres across can be lifted, and then split into thin posts for fencing or training vines: an essential alternative to wooden posts that termites would otherwise devour in a matter of months.

Solomon Buckman and colleagues from the University of Wollongong, Australia were drawn to a new hypothesis for inselberg formation by observations around low rock faces and boulders after the 2019-20 “Black Summer” wildfires in eastern Australia. Where burned trees had fallen against rock faces up to hundreds of kg of spalled flakes lay at the base of each face, which also bore freshly formed scars: clear signs of fire action. Thermal expansion and contraction of rock caused by air temperatures of hundreds of degrees close to wildfires is clearly a powerful means of rapid erosion. If the rock is damp – most likely at the base of a rockface as all rainfall on the outcrop drains in its direction – the mechanism is enhanced: Hannibal’s engineers poured vinegar onto the boulders heated by fire, to great effect. Buckman et al. estimate the rate of lateral erosion by fire at slope bases in Australia to be around ten thousand times faster than those operating on horizontal rock surfaces, which are not exposed to fire as no vegetation grows on them. Over time, slopes steepen aided by the formation of flared surfaces at the base. If spalled debris is carried away quickly the developing inselberg evolves to its classical sugarloaf shape. In more arid conditions the debris builds around the outcrop to steadily smother inselberg development, leaving tors and kopjes. The paper came to press remarkably quickly relative to the authors’ field work and analyses. This is a work-in-progress to be followed up by cosmogenic-isotope and other means of surface dating of the tops and flanks of suitably accessible inselbergs and simiar features such as Western Australia’s famous Wave Rock (a flared escarpment).

Wave Rock in the interior of Western Australia is 15 m high and 100 m long and revered by the local Ballardong people as a creation of the Rainbow Serpent