Response of tundra ecosystem in southwestern Alaska to Younger-Dryas climatic oscillation


F. S. Hu, tel. (217) 244 7246, fax (217) 244 7246, e-mail:


Climatic warming during the last glacial–interglacial transition (LGIT) was punctuated by reversals to glacial-like conditions. Palaeorecords of ecosystem change can help document the geographical extent of these events and improve our understanding of biotic sensitivity to climatic forcing. To reconstruct ecosystem and climatic variations during the LGIT, we analyzed lake sediments from southwestern Alaska for fossil pollen assemblages, biogenic-silica content (BSiO2%), and organic-carbon content (OC%). Betula shrub tundra replaced herb tundra as the dominant vegetation of the region around 13 600 cal BP (cal BP: 14C calibrated calendar years before present), as inferred from an increase of Betula pollen percentages from << 5% to >> 20% with associated decreases in Cyperaceae, Poaceae, and Artemisia. At c. 13 000 cal BP, a decrease of Betula pollen from 28 to << 5% suggests that shrub tundra reverted to herb tundra. Shrub tundra replaced herb tundra to resume as the dominant vegetation at 11 600 cal BP. Higher OC% and BSiO2% values suggest more stable soils and higher aquatic productivity during shrub-tundra periods than during herb-tundra periods, although pollen changes lagged behind changes in the biogeochemical indicators before c. 13 000 cal BP. Comparison of our palaeoecological data with the ice-core dδ18O record from Greenland reveals strikingly similar patterns from the onset through the termination of the Younger Dryas (YD). This similarity supports the hypothesis that, as in the North Atlantic region, pronounced YD climatic oscillations occurred in the North Pacific region. The rapidity and magnitude of ecological changes at the termination of the YD are consistent with greenhouse experiments and historic photographs demonstrating tundra sensitivity to climatic forcing.