Freitag, 28. August 2009

Caves and the dream of long term records

Within the Alps, long term climate records, ranging to the last or even to the penultimate interglacial are exceptionally rare. We are simply lacking sediments of these periods - sediments of interglacial's were systematically eroded by the (re)advance of glaciers, lay hidden under younger sediments (mostly postglacial alluvional river deposits) or are simply not yet recognised.
In cave systems we are not (so) affected by the destructive power of glaciers, so there maybe can be found sediments ranging much deeper in time, with a record much completer then in the outside world.

Speleothem growth depends strongly from temperature and water chemistry, and water in liquid form depends strongly by temperature of the environment outside the cave. During a cold period, water will be trapped in form of ice on the surface, and water percolation in the underground will be very restricted or completely missing - the speleothem will stop to growth. During warming, and melting of ice, again water is available, and the speleothem goes on growing. So just the presence of speleothems can provide a first clue to reconstruct past climates. But even better - the isotopic composition of the precipitation changes with the amount of water trapped in ice shields - so measuring the relationship between the two oxygen isotopes (the "light" 16O and the "heavy" 18O) in the- from the water deposited - carbonates, can give a direct information's of extend of ice shields, and so climate, during the past. And the carbon isotopes 13C and 12C, also found in the carbonate, give hinds on vegetation and soil cover of the catchment area of the cave. Plants assimilate preferred the lighter isotope - a high values of delta13C indicate low or even negligible input of soil-derived organic carbon into the dripwater.

Spannagel cave is a large high altitude (entrance to the cave 2.531m, extending down in two main branches to ca. 2.200m a.s.l.) cave network with approximately 10km of length in the Zillertal Alps of Austria.

The "Hintertux glacier" with the morain of the last highstand (1850). The entrance of the Spannagel caves - and also the Spannagel hut- lies on the upper end of the left morain.

It is the largest out of a series of more than 30 caves that developed within the Jurassic marble that covers the "Zentralgneiss" - the tectonic uplifted gneiss core of the "Tauern window", and is itself overlie by the phengitic gneisses.

The area above the cave today is ice free, but it was covered partially by the Hintertux glacier until 1850, and covered entirely by up to 250 thick ice during the past glacial. U/Th dates in the cave showed that deposition of the speleothems occurred repeatedly during the past few hundred thousand years, and is still ongoing, thanks of the constant temperature (1-2°C) in the cave slightly over the freezing point of water.

A stalagmite in the cave, composed of dense, columnar calcite, apparently grew without significant interruption for ca. 50 ka, albeit at a very slow rate, during the penultimate interglacial. The oxygen isotope record shows three prominent maxima, representing three warm phases, separated by a long earlier and a shorter later cold period. The mid points of the transitions into the three warm phases occurred at 240 ± 3 (correlated subsequently with the MarineIsotopicStadium 7.5), 215 ± 2 (MIS 7.3) and 200 ± 3 ka (MIS 7.1) and the end of the interglacial (MIS 7/6 transition) was dated to 190 ± 3 ka.

During full glacial periods no speleothem growth could be found.
During the transition of interglacial to glacial conditions the sudden drop of the isotopes values suggest a cooling, but speleothems growth continues. Comparing the curve of the oxygen isotopes with the carbon isotopes shows a remarkable pattern - both curves appear very similar, relatively high delta18O values indicating warm atmospheric conditions coincide with high delta13C values. This suggests very little if any vegetation at this cave during the warm periods, and so less favourable conditions than today - were at least a thin soil developed.
The later interglacial (MIS 5), and also the Holocene show data with higher values of delta18O, and a low delta13C value during the "high stand" of oxygen - high temperature and thick soil and vegetation cover.

Continuous stable isotope record of speleothem growth during the Marine Isotope Stage 7 at the high-alpine Spannagel Cave, Central Alps. SPÖTL et al. (2008): Spannagel Cave, Austria MIS 7 Speleothem Stable Isotope Data. Age is given in kyr BP, isotope ratio per mil VPDB).
Relatively high (reaching -8 to -9 0/00) delta18O values indicating warm atmospheric conditions, these values during the observed interglacial coincide with relative high delta13C values (>2 0/00). The 13C isotope derives mostly of anorganic sources (p.e. dissolving limestone), so high values are sign of lacking vegetation or organic rich soil cover. During "cold periods" complete lack of soil and vegetation produces the high peak between 230-220kyrs.

These facts let conclude that the penultimate interglacial posess three major climatic phases, with warmer periods separated by cooler periods. On average this interglacial was less warmer then the last interglacial or the Holocene in this altitude, with consequent lower equilibrium lines for glaciers. The catchment area of the Spannagel cave must be covered by ice, but the ongoing growths of speleothems demonstrate the presence of water - this implies warm based conditions beneath the ice. Only during full glacial conditions no speleothem deposit occurred.


SPÖTL, C.; MANGINI, A.; BURNS, S.J., FRANK, N. & PAVUZA, R. (2002): Speleothems from the high-alpine Spannagel cave, Zillertal Alps (Austria). In (ed.) SASOWSKY & MYLROIE: Studies of Cave Sediments: Physical and Chemical Records of Paleoclimate

SPÖTL et al.(2006): The last and the Penultimate Interglacial as Recorded by Speleothems From a Climatically Sensitive High-Elevation Cave Site in the Alps. In SIROCKO, F. et al. (ed): The climate of past interglacial. Developments in Quaternary Science 7.
VOLLWEILER, N.; MANGINI, A.; SPÖTL, C.; SCHOLZ, D. & MÜHLINGHAUS, C. (2009: Stalagmites from Spannagel cave (Austria) and holocene climate. Geophysical Research Abstracts. Vol.11

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