Evidence of thermophilisation and elevation-dependent warming during the Last Interglacial in the Italian Alps

V. E. Johnston, A. Borsato, S. Frisia, C. Spötl, Y. Dublyansky, P. Töchterle, J. C. Hellstrom, P. Bajo, R. L. Edwards, H. Cheng

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22 Scopus citations


Thermophilisation is the response of plants communities in mountainous areas to increasing temperatures, causing an upward migration of warm-adapted (thermophilic) species and consequently, the timberline. This greening, associated with warming, causes enhanced evapotranspiration that leads to intensification of the hydrological cycle, which is recorded by hydroclimate-sensitive archives, such as stalagmites and flowstones formed in caves. Understanding how hydroclimate manifests at high altitudes is important for predicting future water resources of many regions of Europe that rely on glaciers and snow accumulation. Using proxy data from three coeval speleothems (stalagmites and flowstone) from the Italian Alps, we reconstructed both the ecosystem and hydrological setting during the Last Interglacial (LIG); a warm period that may provide an analogue to a near-future climate scenario. Our speleothem proxy data, including calcite fabrics and the stable isotopes of calcite and fluid inclusions, indicate a +4.3 ± 1.6°C temperature anomaly at ∼2000 m a.s.l. for the peak LIG, with respect to present-day values (1961-1990). This anomaly is significantly higher than any low-altitude reconstructions for the LIG in Europe, implying elevation-dependent warming during the LIG. The enhanced warming at high altitudes must be accounted for when considering future climate adaption strategies in sensitive mountainous regions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number2680
JournalScientific reports
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 1 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
VEJ received funding from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme for research, technological development and demonstration under grant agreement no. COFUND-GA-2008-226070 - project “Trentino”. The Geological Survey of the Autonomous Province of Trento permitting sampling in CB Cave. We greatly appreciate laboratory help from Manuela Wimmer, Marc Luetscher and Gina Moseley (University of Innsbruck), Angela Min (University of Minnesota) and Steve Eggins (The Australian National University). We acknowledge the contribution of Michele Zandonati constructing Fig. 1.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 The Author(s).


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