Abrupt climate change as an important agent of ecological change in the Northeast US throughout the past 15,000 years

TitleAbrupt climate change as an important agent of ecological change in the Northeast US throughout the past 15,000 years
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2009
AuthorsShuman, BN, Newby, P, Donnelly, JP
JournalQuaternary Science Reviews

We use a series of tests to evaluate two competing hypotheses about the association of climate and vegetation trends in the northeastern United States over the past 15 kyrs. First, that abrupt climate changes on the scale of centuries had little influence on long-term vegetation trends, and second, that abrupt climate changes interacted with slower climate trends to determine the regional sequence of vegetation phases. Our results support the second. Large dissimilarity between temporally close fossil pollen samples indicates large vegetation changes within 500 years across >4 degrees of latitude at ca 13.25-12.75, 12.0-11.5, 10.5, 8.25, and 5.25 ka. The evidence of vegetation change coincides with independent isotopic and sedimentary indicators of rapid shifts in temperature and moisture balance. In several cases, abrupt changes reversed long-term vegetation trends, such as when spruce (Picea) and pine (Pinus) pollen percentages rapidly declined to the north and increased to the south at ca 13.25-12.75 and 8.25 ka respectively. Abrupt events accelerated other long-term trends, such as a regional increase in beech (Fagus) pollen percentages at 8.5-8.0 ka. The regional hemlock (Tsuga) decline at ca 5.25 ka is unique among the abrupt events, and may have been induced by high climatic variability (i.e., repeated severe droughts from 5.7 to 2.0 ka); autoregressive ecological and evolutionary processes could have maintained low hemlock abundance until ca 2.0 ka. Delayed increases in chestnut (Castanea) pollen abundance after 5.8 and 2.5 ka also illustrate the potential for multi-century climate variability to influence species' recruitment as well as mortality. Future climate changes will probably also rapidly initiate persistent vegetation change, particularly by acting as broad, regional-scale disturbances. (C) 2009 Published by Elsevier Ltd.