Tag Archives: Ice age

Amazonian forest through the last glacial maximum

Accelerated evolution may occur when a small population of a species – whose genetic variability is therefore limited – becomes isolated from all other members. This is one explanation for the rise of new species, as in the Galapagos archipelago. Creation of such genetic bottlenecks encourages rapid genetic drift away from the main population. It has been suggested to explain sudden behavioural shifts in anatomically modern humans over the last hundred thousand years or so, partly through rapid and long-distance migrations and partly through a variety of environmental catastrophes, such as the huge Toba eruption around 74 ka. Another example has been proposed for the teemingly diverse flora and fauna of the Amazon Basin, particularly among its ~7500 species of butterflies, which has been ascribed to shrinkage of the Amazonian rain forest to isolated patches that became refuges from dry conditions during the last glacial maximum.

Top: Arid ice age climate Middle: Atlantic Per...

Potential forest cover inferred from global climate models for the last glacial maximum (top) the Holocene thermal maximum and at present.. (credit: Wikipedia)

A great deal of evidence suggests that during glacial maxima global climate became considerably drier than that in interglacials, low-latitude deserts and savannah grasslands expanding at the expense of humid forest. Yet the emerging complexity of how climate change proceeds from place to place suggests that evidence such continental drying from one well-documented region, such as tropical Africa, cannot be applied to another without confirming data. Amazonia has been the subject of long-standing controversy about such ecological changes and formation of isolated forest ‘islands’ in the absence of definitive palaeoclimate data from the region itself. A multinational team has now published data on climatic humidity changes over the last 45 ka in what is now an area of dense forest but also receives lower rainfall than most of Amazonia; i.e. where rolling back forest to savannah would have been most likely to occur during the last glacial maximum (Wang, X. et al. 2017. Hydroclimate changes across the Amazon lowlands over the past 45,000 years. Nature, v. 541, p. 204-207; doi:10.1038/nature20787).

Their study area is tropical karst, stalagmites from one of whose caves have yielded detailed oxygen-isotope time series. Using the U/Th dating technique has given the data a time resolution of decades covering the global climatic decline into the last glacial maximum and its recovery to modern times. The relative abundance of oxygen isotopes (expressed by δ18O) in the calcium carbonate layers that make up the stalagmites is proportional to that of the rainwater that carried calcium and carbonate ions dissolved from the limestones. The rainwater δ18O itself depended on the balance between rainfall and evaporation, higher values indicating reduced precipitation. Relative proportions of carbon isotopes in the stalagmites, expressed by δ13C, record the balance of trees and grasses, which have different carbon-isotope signatures. Rainfall in the area did indeed fall during the run-up to the last glacial maximum, to about 60% of that at present, then to rise to ~142% in the mid-Holocene (6 ka). Yet δ13C in the stalagmites remained throughout comparable with those in the Holocene layers, its low values being incompatible with any marked expansion of grasses.

English: View of Amazon basin forest north of ...

Amazonian rain forest north of Manaus, Brazil. (credit: Wikipedia)

One important factor in converting rain forest to grass-dominated savannah is fire induced by climatic drying. Tree mortality and loss of cover accelerates drying out of the forest floor in a vicious circle towards grassland, expressed today by human influences in much of Amazonia. Fires in Amazonia must therefore have been rare during the last ice age; indeed sediment cores from the Amazon delta do not reveal any significant charcoal ‘spike’.

See also: Bush, M.B 2017. The resilience of Amazonian forests. Nature, v. 541, p. 167-168; doi:10.1038/541167a

Carbon emissions: It’s an ill wind…

The original saying emerged in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 2 (Act 5, Scene 3) during a jocular exchange when Ancient Pistol brings news from Court to Sir John Falstaff and other old codgers at dinner in Gloucestershire. Falstaff: ‘What wind blew you hither, Pistol?’ Pistol: ‘Not the ill wind which blows no man to good’. In the present context it seems anthropogenic CO2 emissions have staved off the otherwise inevitable launch of another glacial epoch. Climate-change deniers will no doubt pounce on this in the manner of a leopard seizing a tasty young monkey.

Auyuittuq National Park: Penny Ice Cap

Penny Ice Cap on Baffin Island ( credit: Wikipedia)

Climatologists at the Institute for Climate Impact Research in Potsdam, Germany, Potsdam University and the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, USA set out to develop a means for predicting the onset of ice ages (Ganopolski, A. et al. 2016. Critical insolation-CO2 relation for diagnosing past and future glacial inception. Nature, v. 529, p. 200-203) Many researchers have concluded from the oxygen isotope data in marine sediments, which tracks changes in the volume of glacial ice on land, that the end of previous interglacial periods by inception of prolonged climatic cooling may be attributed to reduction of solar heating in summer at high northern latitudes. This conclusion stems from Milankovic’s predictions from the Earth’s astronomically controlled orbital parameters and fits most of previous interglacial to glacial transitions. But summer insolation at 65°N is now more or less at one of these minima, with no signs of drastic global cooling; rather the opposite, as part of 7 thousand years of constant global sea level during the Holocene interglacial.

The latest supercomputer model of the Earth System (CLIMBER-2) has successfully ‘predicted’ the last eight ice ages from astronomical and other data derived from a variety of climate proxies. It also forecasts the next to have already begun, if atmospheric CO2 concentration was 240 parts per million; the level during earlier interglacials most similar to that in which we live. But the pre-industrial level was 280 ppm and the model suggests that would have put off the return of huge ice caps in the Northern Hemisphere for another 50 thousand years – partly because the present insolation minimum is not deep enough to launch a new ice age with that CO2 concentration – making the Holocene likely to be by far the longest interglacial since ice-age cycles began about 2.5 Ma ago. Based on current, industrially contaminated CO2 levels and a rapid curtailment of carbon emissions the model suggests no return to full glacial conditions within the next 100 ka and possibly longer; a consequence of the sluggishness of natural processes that draw-down CO2 from the atmosphere.

English: Ice age Earth at glacial maximum. Bas...

Simulation of the Earth at a glacial maximum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, does this indicate that unwittingly the Industrial Revolution and subsequent growth in the use of fossil fuels tipped the balance away from global cooling that would eventually have made vast tracts of both hemispheres uninhabitable? At first sight, that’s the way it looks. But the atmospheric carbon content of the 17th century would have resulted in much the same long drawn out Holocene interglacial; an unprecedented skipping of an ice age in the period covering most of the history of human evolution. This raises a question first posed by Bill Ruddiman in 2003: did human agriculture and associated CO2 emission begin the destabilisation of the Earth system shortly after Holocene warming and human ingenuity made farming and herding possible since about 10 thousand years ago?

But, consider this, the CLIMBER-2 Earth System model is said to be one of ‘intermediate complexity’ which is shorthand for one that relies on the ages-old scientific method of reductionism or basing each modelled scenario on modifying one parameter at a time. Moreover, for many parameters of the Earth’s climate system – clouds, dust, the cooling effect of increased winter precipitation as snow, and much else – scientists are pretty much in the dark (Crucifix, M. 2016. Earth’s narrow escape from a big freeze. Nature, v. 529, p. 162-163). Indeed it is still not certain whether CO2 levels have a naturally active or passive role in glacial-interglacial cycles, or something more complex than the simple cause-effect paradigm that still dominates much of science.

Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions – were humans to blame?

Australia and the Americas had an extremely diverse fauna of large beasts (giant wombats and kangeroos in Australia; elephants, bears, big cats, camelids, ground sloths etc in the Americas) until the last glaciation and the warming period that led into the Holocene interglacial. The majority of these megafauna species vanished suddenly during that recent period. To a lesser extent something similar happened in Eurasia, but nothing significant in Africa. Because the last glacial cycle also saw migration of efficient human hunter-gatherers to every other continent except Antarctica, many ecologists, palaeontologists and anthropologists saw a direct link between human predation and the mass extinction (see Earth-Pages of April 2012. Earlier humans had indeed spread far and wide in Eurasia before, and the crude hypothesis that the last arrivals in Australasia and the Americas devoured all the meatiest prey in three continents had some traction as a result: predation in Eurasia and Africa by earlier hominids would have made surviving prey congenitally wary of bipeds with spears. In Australia and the Americas the megafauna species would have been naive and confident in their sheer bulk, numbers, speed and, in some cases, ferocity. Other possibilities emerged, such as the introduction of viruses to which faunas had no immunity or as a result of climate change, but none of the three possibilities has gained incontrovertible proof. But the most popular, human connection has had severe knocks in the last couple of years. A fourth, that the extinctions stemmed from a comet impact proved to have little traction.

English: s were driven to extinction by and hu...

Megafauna in a late-Pleistocene landscape including woolly mammoths and rhinoceroses, horses, and cave lions with a carcass. (credit: Wikipedia)

Since the amazing success of analysing the bulk DNA debris in sea water – environmental DNA or eDNA – to look at the local diversity of marine animals, the analytical and computing techniques that made it possible have been turned to ancient terrestrial materials: soils, permafrost and glacial ice. One of the first attempts revealed mammoth and pre-Columbian horse DNA surviving in Alaskan permafrost, thanks to the herds’ copious urination and dung spreading. Several articles in the 24 July 2015 issue of Science review ancient DNA advances, including eDNA from soils that chart changes in both fauna and flora over the last glacial cycle (Pennisi, E. 2015. Lost worlds found. Science, v. 349, p. 367-369). Combined with a variety of means of dating the material that yield the ancient eDNA, an interesting picture is emerging. The soil and permafrost samples potentially express ancient ecosystems in far more detail than would fossil animals or pollens, many of which are too similar to look at the species level and in any case are dominated by the most abundant plants rather than showing those critical in the food chain.

Nunavut tundra

Plants of the Arctic tundra in Nunavut, Canada (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first major success in palaeoecology of this kind came with a 50-author paper using eDNA ‘bar-coding’ of permafrost from 242 sites in Siberia and Alaska IWillerslev, E. and 49 others 2014. Fifty thousand years of Arctic vegetation and megafaunal diet. Nature, v. 506, p. 47-51. doi:10.1038/nature12921). Dividing the samples into 3 time spans – 50-25, 25-15 (last glacial maximum) and younger than 15 ka – the team found these major stages in the last glacial cycle mapped an ecological change from a dry tundra dominated by abundant herbaceous plants (forbs including abundant anemones and forget-me-not), to a markedly depleted Arctic steppe ecosystem then moist tundra with woody plants and grasses dominating. They also analysed the eDNA of dung and gut contents from ice-age megafauna, such as mammoths, bison and woolly rhinos, where these were found, which showed that forbs were the mainstay of their diet. Using bones of large mammals 6 member of the team also established the timing of extinctions in the last 56 ka (Cooper, A. et al. 2015. Abrupt warming events drove Late Pleistocene Holarctic megafaunal turnover. Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.aac4315), showing 31 regional extinction pulses linked to the rapid ups and downs of climate during Dansgaard-Oeschger cycles in the run-up to the last glacial maximum. By the end of the last glacial maximum, the megafauna were highly stressed by purely climatic and ecological factors. Human predation probably finished them off.