• Landscape sensitivity to climate change in northern Alaska: lessons from the past

      Gaglioti, Benjamin V.; Mann, Daniel H.; Wooller, Matthew J.; Arp, Christopher D.; Jones, Miriam C.; Jones, Jeremy B.; Swanson, David K. (2016-05)
      The climate is now changing rapidly at high-latitudes, and observing how the Arctic and sub-Arctic environment responded to prehistoric climate changes can hold valuable lessons as we adapt in the future. This dissertation presents four studies that use biogeochemical proxies to reconstruct environmental changes in northern Alaska over the last 40,000 years (40 ka). These records are used to infer how the environment responded to climate changes at different locations and over varying spatial and temporal scales. The first study presents a time series of stable oxygen isotopes contained in radiocarbon-dated (¹⁴C) willow wood to quantify the nature and rates of climate change on the North Slope of Alaska over the last 40 ka. The second study examines how past temperature fluctuations affected permafrost thaw and the release of ancient carbon over the last 14.5 ka by compiling ¹⁴C-age offsets in the sediment of a small lake in the Brooks Range foothills. In the third study, I document human-caused changes to boreal wildfire frequency near the city of Fairbanks to test whether the primeval forest type and permafrost in the surrounding watershed will be vulnerable to more frequent fires in the future. The fourth study examines how ice age (40-9 ka) climate changes impacted the activity of sand dunes, vegetation productivity, and the dynamics of permafrost recorded in a unique sedimentary exposure located near the Arctic Coastal Plain on Alaska’s North Slope. Overall, I present several new and interesting approaches and findings stemming from this work. Ancient willow isotopes show that between 17 and 8 ka, during the time when ice sheets were in retreat worldwide, temperatures fluctuated widely on the North Slope mostly in concert with those in Greenland. Most notably, rapid changes in temperature and moisture occurred during the initial deglacial warming (ca. 16 ka), and during the Younger Dryas cold period (12.9-11.7 ka). These climate trends were amplified on the North Slope by changes in sea-ice extent in adjacent seas, which also controlled the availability of local precipitation evaporated from these seas. However, these warming and cooling trends were occasionally dampened by the advent of more maritime climate accompanying sea-level rise during the early Holocene, and by the breakdown of the atmospheric circulation patterns created by continental ice sheets in North America during the last glacial maximum. Over the last 7 ka, a gradual, insolation-driven cooling trend ended in ca. AD 1850 when the exceptional rates of recent warming began that continue to today. I found that the vegetation, permafrost and sand dunes in Arctic Alaska were sensitive to external climate forcing, but their responses were moderated by strong, internal feedbacks, including the temperature-buffering effects that thick peat layers have on the underlying permafrost. Prior to peat buildup in the early Holocene, the timing of sedimentary transitions indicate permafrost and aeolian processes were highly responsive to the volatile climate during the last ice age, which included Greenland interstadials. This incessant ice age climate change, coupled with the complex biophysical landscape responses that are particular to the unglaciated Arctic, helped maintain the ecological mosaic of the Mammoth Steppe ecosystem. Prehistoric warming events triggered permafrost thaw and the release of ancient carbon during the Bølling-Allerød (14.5-12.9 ka) and early Holocene warm period (11.7-8.0 ka), and this release is likely to occur again given enough warming. In the boreal forest watershed near Fairbanks, Alaska, the current ecological regime has remained intact despite a three-fold increase in pre-settlement wildfires during the Fairbanks gold rush (1902-1940). Once continued warming surpasses the buffering effects of the current internal feedbacks of the North Slope and boreal forest and the threshold for change is reached, more dynamic aeolian and permafrost processes may again dominate as they did on the more unstable and diverse ice age landscape. Overall, the results of this work will be useful for understanding how climate and landscape change in northern Alaska will respond to global climate forcing in the future.