A molecular isotope record of climate variability and vegetation response in southwestern North America during mid-Pleistocene glacial/interglacial cycles

Sergio Contreras, Josef P. Werne, Erik T. Brown, Scott R Anderson, Peter J. Fawcett

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

1 Citation (Scopus)

Abstract

Climate variability during Pleistocene glacial/interglacial transitions is well documented in marine and ice-sheet isotopic records, but terrestrial records showing the continental response to these transitions are scarce, especially for earlier in the Pleistocene. Cyclic intervals of warm interglacial and cold glacial conditions preserved in terrestrial records such as lake sediments provide opportunities to probe the biosphere's response to climate change. In this study, we track climate and plant type changes, specifically the presence of C3 and C4 plants, using the abundance and δ13C signatures of leaf waxes in paleolacustrine sediments from Valles Caldera in New Mexico. Through these changes, we assess the response of vegetation to climate variability in southwestern North America through two mid-Pleistocene glacial/interglacial transitions (Marine Isotope Stage [MIS] 14/13 and 12/11). Leaf wax data show that the C3 forest taxa were dominant through the entire record whereas C4 plants, better adapted to warm conditions and competitive under water stress, are favored during warming and extended arid periods during interglacials. The δ13C signature in leaf wax n-alkanes suggests that C4 plants persisted in the watershed throughout the interglacials and that some summer rainfall (which is required to support C4 grasses) was maintained even during prolonged dry periods. The abundance and carbon isotope composition of leaf waxes together with new MBT/CBT (methylation index of branched tetraethers/cyclization index of branched tetraethers) temperature data confirm warmer and more arid conditions during MIS 13 than during MIS 11, in spite of relatively low greenhouse gas concentrations during MIS 13. This suggests that variations in incoming solar radiation have played a major role in regulating the surface temperature, regional hydrological systems and vegetation in southwestern North America, likely through changes in the North American Monsoon coupled with variations in the location of the mid-latitude westerlies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)338-347
Number of pages10
JournalPalaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology
Volume459
DOIs
StatePublished - Oct 1 2016

Fingerprint

glacial-interglacial cycle
marine isotope stage
wax
C4 plant
isotopes
waxes
interglacial
Pleistocene
isotope
C4 plants
climate
vegetation
leaves
C3 plant
methylation
sediments
caldera
water stress
alkane
biosphere

Keywords

  • C3 vs. C4 vegetation
  • Carbon stable isotopes
  • Climate change
  • Interglacial
  • Leaf waxes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oceanography
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Earth-Surface Processes
  • Palaeontology

Cite this

A molecular isotope record of climate variability and vegetation response in southwestern North America during mid-Pleistocene glacial/interglacial cycles. / Contreras, Sergio; Werne, Josef P.; Brown, Erik T.; Anderson, Scott R; Fawcett, Peter J.

In: Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, Vol. 459, 01.10.2016, p. 338-347.

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

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AB - Climate variability during Pleistocene glacial/interglacial transitions is well documented in marine and ice-sheet isotopic records, but terrestrial records showing the continental response to these transitions are scarce, especially for earlier in the Pleistocene. Cyclic intervals of warm interglacial and cold glacial conditions preserved in terrestrial records such as lake sediments provide opportunities to probe the biosphere's response to climate change. In this study, we track climate and plant type changes, specifically the presence of C3 and C4 plants, using the abundance and δ13C signatures of leaf waxes in paleolacustrine sediments from Valles Caldera in New Mexico. Through these changes, we assess the response of vegetation to climate variability in southwestern North America through two mid-Pleistocene glacial/interglacial transitions (Marine Isotope Stage [MIS] 14/13 and 12/11). Leaf wax data show that the C3 forest taxa were dominant through the entire record whereas C4 plants, better adapted to warm conditions and competitive under water stress, are favored during warming and extended arid periods during interglacials. The δ13C signature in leaf wax n-alkanes suggests that C4 plants persisted in the watershed throughout the interglacials and that some summer rainfall (which is required to support C4 grasses) was maintained even during prolonged dry periods. The abundance and carbon isotope composition of leaf waxes together with new MBT/CBT (methylation index of branched tetraethers/cyclization index of branched tetraethers) temperature data confirm warmer and more arid conditions during MIS 13 than during MIS 11, in spite of relatively low greenhouse gas concentrations during MIS 13. This suggests that variations in incoming solar radiation have played a major role in regulating the surface temperature, regional hydrological systems and vegetation in southwestern North America, likely through changes in the North American Monsoon coupled with variations in the location of the mid-latitude westerlies.

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