Study finds earlier peak for Spain’s glaciers

Jane Willenbring (upper right) takes samples to date a boulder in Spain's Bejar mountain range. Her findings helped show that ancient glaciers in the region reached their maximum size several thousands of years earlier than once believed. -  University of Pennsylvania
Jane Willenbring (upper right) takes samples to date a boulder in Spain’s Bejar mountain range. Her findings helped show that ancient glaciers in the region reached their maximum size several thousands of years earlier than once believed. – University of Pennsylvania

The last glacial maximum was a time when Earth’s far northern and far southern latitudes were largely covered in ice sheets and sea levels were low. Over much of the planet, glaciers were at their greatest extent roughly 20,000 years ago. But according to a study headed by University of Pennsylvania geologist Jane Willenbring, that wasn’t true in at least one part of southern Europe. Due to local effects of temperature and precipitation, the local glacial maximum occurred considerably earlier, around 26,000 years ago.

The finding sheds new light on how regional climate has varied over time, providing information that could lead to more-accurate global climate models, which predict what changes Earth will experience in the future.

Willenbring, an assistant professor in Penn’s Department of Earth and Environmental Science in the School of Arts and Sciences, teamed with researchers from Spain, the United Kingdom, China and the United States to pursue this study of the ancient glaciers of southern Europe.

“We wanted to unravel why and when glaciers grow and shrink,” Willenbring said.

In the study site in central Spain, it is relatively straightforward to discern the size of ancient glaciers, because the ice carried and dropped boulders at the margin. Thus a ring of boulders marks the edge of the old glacier.

It is not as easy to determine what caused the glacier to grow, however. Glaciers need both moisture and cold temperatures to expand. Studying the boulders that rim the ancient glaciers alone cannot distinguish these contributions. Caves, however, provide a way to differentiate the two factors. Stalagmites and stalactites – the stony projections that grow from the cave floor and ceiling, respectively – carry a record of precipitation because they grow as a result of dripping water.

“If you add the cave data to the data from the glaciers, it gives you a neat way of figuring out whether it was cold temperatures or higher precipitation that drove the glacier growth at the time,” Willenbring said.

The researchers conducted the study in three of Spain’s mountain ranges: the Bejár, Gredos and Guadarrama. The nearby Eagle Cave allowed them to obtain indirect precipitation data.

To ascertain the age of the boulders strewn by the glaciers and thus come up with a date when glaciers were at their greatest extent, Willenbring and colleagues used a technique known as cosmogenic nuclide exposure dating, which measures the chemical residue of supernova explosions. They also used standard radiometric techniques to date stalagmites from Eagle Cave, which gave them information about fluxes in precipitation during the time the glaciers covered the land.

“Previously, people believe the last glacial maximum was somewhere in the range of 19-23,000 years ago,” Willenbring said. “Our chronology indicates that’s more in the range of 25-29,000 years ago in Spain.”

The geologists found that, although temperatures were cool in the range of 19,000-23,000 years ago, conditions were also relatively dry, so the glaciers did not regain the size they had obtained several thousand years earlier, when rain and snowfall totals were higher. They reported their findings in the journal Scientific Reports.

Given the revised timeline in this region, Willenbring and colleagues determined that the increased precipitation resulted from changes in the intensity of the sun’s radiation on the Earth, which is based on the planet’s tilt in orbit. Such changes can impact patterns of wind, temperature and storms.

“That probably means there was a southward shift of the North Atlantic Polar Front, which caused storm tracks to move south, too,” Willenbring said. “Also, at this time there was a nice warm source of precipitation, unlike before and after when the ocean was colder.”

Willenbring noted that the new date for the glacier maximum in the Mediterranean region, which is several thousands of years earlier than the date the maximum was reached in central Europe, will help provide more context for creating accurate global climate models.

“It’s important for global climate models to be able to test under what conditions precipitation changes and when sources for that precipitation change,” she said. “That’s particularly true in some of these arid regions, like the American Southwest and the Mediterranean.”

When glaciers were peaking in the Mediterranean around 26,000 years ago, the American Southwest was experiencing similar conditions. Areas that are now desert were moist. Large lakes abounded, including Lake Bonneville, which covered much of modern-day Utah. The state’s Great Salt Lake is what remains.

“Lakes in this area were really high for 5,000-10,000 years, and the cause for that has always been a mystery,” Willenbring said. “By looking at what was happening in the Mediterranean, we might eventually be able to say something about the conditions that led to these lakes in the Southwest, too.”

Researchers use stalagmites to study past climate change

Stalagmites like these from northern Borneo are the ice cores of the tropics. -  Adkins/Caltech
Stalagmites like these from northern Borneo are the ice cores of the tropics. – Adkins/Caltech

There is an old trick for remembering the difference between stalactites and stalagmites in a cave: Stalactites hold tight to the ceiling while stalagmites might one day grow to reach the ceiling. Now, it seems, stalagmites might also fill a hole in our understanding of Earth’s climate system and how that system is likely to respond to the rapid increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide since preindustrial times.

Many existing historical climate records are biased to the high latitudes- coming from polar ice cores and North Atlantic deep ocean sediments. Yet a main driver of climate variability today is El Niño, which is a completely tropical phenomenon. All of this begs the question: How do we study such tropical climate influences? The answer: stalagmites.

“Stalagmites are the ice cores of the tropics,” says Jess Adkins, professor of geochemistry and global environmental science at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). He and geochemist Kim Cobb of the Georgia Institute of Technology led a team that collected samples from stalagmites in caves in northern Borneo and measured their levels of oxygen isotopes to reconstruct a history of the tropical West Pacific’s climate over four glacial cycles during the late Pleistocene era (from 570,000 to 210,000 years ago).

The results appear in the May 3 issue of Science Express. The lead author of the paper, Nele Meckler, completed most of the work as a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech and is now at the Geological Institute of ETH Zürich.

Throughout Earth’s history, global climate has shifted between periods of glacial cooling that led to ice ages, and interglacial periods of relative warmth, such as the present. Past studies from high latitudes have indicated that about 430,000 years ago-at a point known as the Mid-Brunhes Event (MBE)-peak temperatures and levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide in interglacial cycles were suddenly bumped up by about a third. But no one has known whether this was also the case closer to the equator.

By studying the records from tropical stalagmites, Adkins and his team found no evidence of such a bump. Instead, precipitation levels remained the same across the glacial cycles, indicating that the tropics did not experience a major shift in peak interglacial conditions following the MBE. “The stalagmite records have glacial cycles in them, but the warm times-the interglacials-don’t change in the same way as they do at high latitudes,” Adkins says. “We don’t know what that tells us yet, but this is the first time the difference has been recorded.”

At the same time, some changes did appear in the climate records from both the high latitudes and the tropics. The researchers found that extreme drying in the tropics coincided with abrupt climate changes in the North Atlantic, at the tail end of glacial periods. It is thought that these rapid climate changes, known as Heinrich events, are triggered by large ice sheets suddenly plunging into the ocean.

“In the tropics, we see these events as very sharp periods of drying in the stalagmite record,” Adkins says. “We think that these droughts indicate that the tropics experienced a more El Niño-like climate at those times, causing them to dry out.” During El Niño events, warm waters from the tropics, near Borneo, shift toward the center of the Pacific Ocean, often delivering heavier rainfall than usual to the western United States while leaving Indonesia and its neighbors extremely dry and prone to forest fires.

The fact that the tropics responded to Heinrich events, but not to the shift that affected the high latitudes following the MBE, suggests that the climate system has two modes of responding to significant changes. “It makes you wonder if maybe the climate system cares about what sort of hammer you hit it with,” Adkins says. “If you nudge the system consistently over long timescales, the tropics seem to be able to continue independently of the high latitudes. But if you suddenly whack the climate system with a big hammer, the impact spreads out and shows up in the tropics.”

This work raises questions about the future in light of recent increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide: Is this increase more like a constant push? Or is it a whack with a big hammer? A case could be made for either one of these scenarios, says Adkins, but he adds that it would be easiest to argue that the forcing is more like a sudden whack, since the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased at such an unprecedented rate.