Abrupt deglaciation on the northeastern Tibetan Plateau: Evidence from Lake Qinghai

Xiuju Liu, Steven M. Colman, Erik T. Brown, Andrew C.G. Henderson, Josef P. Werne, Jonathan A. Holmes

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39 Scopus citations


We inferred the climate history for Central Asia over the past 20,000 years, using sediments from core QH07, taken in the southeastern basin of Lake Qinghai, which lies at the northeastern margin of the Tibetan Plateau. Results from multiple environmental indicators are internally consistent and yield a clear late Pleistocene and Holocene climate record. Carbonate content and total organic carbon (TOC) in Lake Qinghai sediments are interpreted as indicators of the strength of the Asian summer monsoon. Warm and wet intervals, associated with increased monsoon strength, are indicated by increased carbonate and TOC content. During the glacial period (~20,000 to ~14,600 cal year BP), summer monsoon intensity remained low and relatively constant at Lake Qinghai, suggesting cool, dry, and relatively stable climate conditions. The inferred stable, cold, arid environment of the glacial maximum seems to persist through the Younger Dryas time period, and little or no evidence of a warm interval correlative with the Bølling-Allerød is found in the QH07 record. The transition between the late Pleistocene and the Holocene, about 11,500 cal year BP, was abrupt, more so than indicated by speleothems in eastern China. The Holocene (~11,500 cal year BP to present) was a time of enhanced summer monsoon strength and greater variability, indicating relatively wetter but more unstable climatic conditions than those of the late Pleistocene. The warmest, wettest part of the Holocene, marked by increased organic matter and carbonate contents, occurred from ~11,500 to ~9,000 cal year BP, consistent with maximum summer insolation contrast between 30°N and 15°N. A gradual reduction in precipitation (weakened summer monsoon) is inferred from decreased carbonate content through the course of the Holocene. We propose that changes in the contrast of summer insolation between 30°N and 15°N are the primary control on the Asian monsoon system over glacial/interglacial time scales. Secondary influences may include regional and global albedo changes attributable to ice-cover and vegetation shifts and sea level changes (distance from moisture source in Pacific Ocean). The abruptness of the change at the beginning of the Holocene, combined with an increase in variability, suggest a threshold for the arrival of monsoonal rainfall at the northeastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)223-240
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Paleolimnology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 1 2014

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Acknowledgments This work was supported by National Science Foundation grant EAR-0602412 to SMC. In addition, some AMS 14C data were supported by a NERC-RCL allocation (1247.1007) to JAH and ACGH. We thank LacCore (National Lacustrine Core Facility), Limnological Research Center, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities for laboratory assistance. We also thank MOE Key Laboratory of Western China’s Environmental Systems, Lanzhou University for field assistance. Helpful reviews were provided by David Madsen, Steffen Mischke, Mark Brenner, and an anonymous reviewer.


  • Abrupt deglaciation
  • Asian monsoon
  • Geochemistry
  • Lake Qinghai
  • Tibetan Plateau


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