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A deglacial and Holocene record of climate variability in south-central Alaska from stable oxygen isotopes and plant macrofossils in peat

March 1, 2014

We used stable oxygen isotopes derived from bulk peat (δ18OTOM), in conjunction with plant macrofossils and previously published carbon accumulation records, in a ∼14,500 cal yr BP peat core (HT Fen) from the Kenai lowlands in south-central Alaska to reconstruct the climate history of the area. We find that patterns are broadly consistent with those from lacustrine records across the region, and agree with the interpretation that major shifts in δ18OTOM values indicate changes in strength and position of the Aleutian Low (AL), a semi-permanent low-pressure cell that delivers winter moisture to the region. We find decreased strength or a more westerly position of the AL (relatively higher δ18OTOM values) during the Bølling-Allerød, Holocene Thermal Maximum (HTM), and late Holocene, which also correspond to warmer climate regimes. These intervals coincide with greater peat preservation and enhanced carbon (C) accumulation rates at the HT Fen and with peatland expansion across Alaska. The HTM in particular may have experienced greater summer precipitation as a result of an enhanced Pacific subtropical high, a pattern consistent with modern δ18O values for summer precipitation. The combined warm summer temperatures and greater summer precipitation helped promote the observed rapid peat accumulation. A strengthened AL (relatively lower δ18OTOM values) is most evident during the Younger Dryas, Neoglaciation, and the Little Ice Age, consistent with lower peat preservation and C accumulation at the HT Fen, suggesting less precipitation reaches the leeward side of the Kenai Mountains during periods of enhanced AL strength. The peatlands on the Kenai Peninsula thrive when the AL is weak and the contribution of summer precipitation is higher, highlighting the importance of precipitation seasonality in promoting peat accumulation. This study demonstrates that δ18OTOM values in peat can be applied toward understand large-scale shifts in atmospheric circulation over millennial timescales.