Deciphering arctic climate in a past greenhouse world: Multiproxy reconstructions of pliocene climate

TitleDeciphering arctic climate in a past greenhouse world: Multiproxy reconstructions of pliocene climate
Publication TypeThesis
Year of Publication2011
AuthorsCsank, AZ
AdvisorLeavitt, S
Academic DepartmentGeoscience
UniversityUniversity of Arizona
KeywordsPaleoclimate Science

The high sensitivity of high latitudes to global climate changes is the stimulus for the study of ancient Arctic ecosystems under greenhouse conditions. With an increasing number of studies, including the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report highlighting Pliocene climate as key example for the study of Earth system sensitivity to higher levels of atmospheric CO₂ , the need for accurate proxy records for this period is crucial. In order to investigate Pliocene climate, I used stable isotopic studies of fossil molluscs, moss and wood from two fossil forest deposits in the Canadian High Arctic. Temperatures were determined for an Early Pliocene (4-5 Ma) fossil forest site located on Ellesmere Island using ‘clumped’ and stable isotopic analysis of mollusc shells and stable isotope values of fossil wood. Mollusc inferred growing season (May-Sept) temperatures derived using two independent techniques were estimated to be 11-16°C warmer than present (1950-1990) Ellesmere Island temperatures. Tree ring inferred growing season (June-July) temperatures (JJ) were 10-16°C and mean annual temperatures (MAT) were 18-20°C warmer than present (1950-1990). Mean annual and growing season (JJ) temperatures were also determined using fossil wood from a younger (2.4-2.8 Ma) late Pliocene-early Pleistocene site on Bylot Island. This deposit represents the remains of a flora that grew during an interglacial warm period during the transition to large-scale Northern Hemisphere glaciation that occurred between 2.5 to 3 million years ago. Mean annual temperatures were ∼12° C and growing season temperatures were ∼13°C warmer than present (1923-2010). The interglacial setting of the Bylot Island site and the warm temperatures suggests that prior to using such sites as true analogues of future conditions we may need to consider how close the feedbacks operating then were to the feedbacks we might expect in the future. However, that temperatures so much warmer than present existed in the high Arctic during a period when levels of atmospheric CO₂ were at nearpresent levels indicates that we may be moving beyond our ability to use the Pliocene as an example of the future.