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

Bryan N. Shuman, Paige Newby, Jeffrey P. Donnelly

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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° 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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1693-1709
Number of pages17
JournalQuaternary Science Reviews
Issue number17-18
StatePublished - Aug 2009

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by NSF grants to B. Shuman (EAR-0602408; DEB-0816731) and J. Donnelly (EAR-0602380), and was initially prepared for a talk given at the 2008 meeting of the American Quaternary Association (AMQUA). We thank the contributors to the NAPD and W. Oswald for making pollen data available; R. Booth, D. Foster, S. Jackson, W. Oswald, and C. Weinig for related discussions and comments on the manuscript; L. Grigg, J. Lowe, T. Webb III, and an anonymous reviewer for insightful reviews of the manuscript. In memory of the contributions of D. Gaudreau and D.C. Kellogg.

Copyright 2009 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.

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