Vignettes > Links between climate change, vegetation and erosion in Australia during the last 100,000 years

Links between climate change, vegetation and erosion in Australia during the last 100,000 years

Anthony Dosseto
University of Wollongong

Kate Maher (Stanford University), Paul Hesse, Kirstie Fryirs and Simon Turner (Macquarie University)

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Continent: Australia
Country: Australia
UTM coordinates and datum: none


Climate Setting: Semi-Arid
Tectonic setting: Passive Margin
Type: Chronology

Figure 1. Illustration of the concepts of “grinding age” and “sediment residence time”. Details

Figure 2. (a) The topographic setting is comprised of three terrain types, mountains, undulating and alluvial. (b) During the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) sediment sources were dominated by hillslope erosion of thin soils. (c) After the LGM, sediment sources switched and were dominated by reworking of old alluvial sediment stored in the Riverine Plain that was released by bank and gully erosion processes. Over these timeframes the connectivity of the catchment has changed, with hillslopes now being disconnected from the channel network. Details

Figure 3. Variations of the sediment residence time in the Murrumbidgee catchment as a function of the deposition age, are compared to (a) Vostok atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration (in ppmv; Petit et al., 1999), (b) estimates of sea surface temperature from planktonic foraminifera (in ºC) (Barrows et al., 2007) and (c) percentage of trees and shrubs in pollen data (Barrows et al., 2007; Heusser and Van de Geer, 1994). (d) Bankfull river discharge of the Murrumbidgee paleochannels as a ratio of the modern river discharge (Page and Nanson, 1996). Details

Sunset on the Riverine Plain. Details


In an era where climate is changing rapidly under the influence of human activity, there is an increasing need to understand how soil and water resources will cope with these changes. While past variations in climate are well documented, the ways in which soil and water resources have responded to these past climatic changes is less well understood. To address this question, one needs to be able to quantify how soil erosion and sediment transport have varied in the past and compare these variations to the climatic record. However, it is only recently that such a quantification has become possible, with the development of cosmogenic nuclides (von Blanckenburg, 2006) and uranium-series (U-series) isotopes (Dosseto et al., 2008a). These techniques offer the opportunity to re-construct past variations in soil erosion and sediment transport, and by comparing these variations to climatic and vegetational records, to investigate the links between erosion, and climatic and biological changes in Australian environments.

In a recent study, DePaolo et al. (2006) suggested that the measurement of radioactive disequilibrium between 238U and 234U nuclides could be used to trace physical weathering: when 238U decays close enough to the surface of a grain (typically less than 0.03 um), the daughter product, 234Th, can be ejected from the grain before decaying into 234U (Fig. 2). Thus, a depletion of 234U compared to 238U occurs at the surface of the grain. However, this depletion can only be measured if the surface area/volume ratio of the grain is large enough, which is the case for grains with a diameter typically smaller than 50 um. The 238U -234U radioactive system will deviate significantly from secular equilibrium only when a grain is reduced to a size less than 50 um. Hence, by measuring the (234U/238U) activity ratio of fine sediments, it is possible to date when the bedrock was physically weathered into a fine sediment. This is termed comminution age. In sediment deposits, the comminution age integrates the duration of storage of sediments in soils, transport in the river and deposition (Fig. 1). Thus, if the deposition age of sediments can be determined (for instance by luminescence dating), by subtracting the deposition age from the comminution age, then the length of time between sediment formation to deposition can be determined. This is termed the residence timeof sediments in the catchment. Thus, for the first time it is possible to re-construct past variations in sediment residence time by determining the comminution age of sediments with different deposition ages.

Dosseto et al. (in review; 2008b) have used this approach to investigate how erosion has responded to climate variability in southeastern Australia during the past 100,000 years. Palaeo-channels from the Murrumbidgee River (Fig. 2) have been sampled. The deposition age of sediments collected in these channels ranges from < 50 years to 100,000 years. The Murrumbidgee River is a 900 km-long tributary of the Murray River that, along with the Darling River, forms the largest river system in Australia (drainage area ~ 1,000,000 km2). The Murrumbidgee River flows westward from the Snowy Mountains across the Riverine Plain before joining the Murray River, the largest river system in Australia (Fig. 2). The measurement of uranium isotopes of these sediments yields comminution age ranging from 42 thousand years (kyr) for sediments deposited during the Last Glacial Maxium (LGM) to 540 kyr for sediments deposited to an interglacial 100 kyr ago. The inferred palaeo-residence times range from 27 kyr (LGM sediments) to 480 kyr (modern sediments). Thus, we observe that during LGM, sediments spend an amount of time in the catchment an order of magnitude smaller than during an interglacial period like today or 100 kyr ago.

To explain these variations Dosseto et al. (in review; 2008b) compared them to different records of climatic and hydrologic parameters (Fig. 3). Interestingly, variations in sediment residence time seem to match some climatic parameters, such as the atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) content as measured in ice cores, or sea-surface temperatures, suggesting a link between changes in climatic conditions and erosion in the Murrumbidgee River basin. However, whilst we would expect a direct link between river discharge and sediment residence time (the more water in the river, the more efficient erosion, the shorter the residence time), there is not a good match between variations in sediment residence time and those in palaeo-discharge, reconstructed using the morphology of palaeo-channels. Dosseto et al. suggest that variations in sediment residence time values reflect a change in the provenance of sediments: during LGM, sediments originate from the headwater regions, where young soils are eroded; while during interglacials, sediments carried in the river mostly derive from re-mobilization of old alluvial sediments, stored in the Riverine Plain for tens of thousands of years. This hypothesis is supported by the co-variations observed between palaeo-residence time values and the type of vegetation in the upper catchment: during LGM, the upper catchment was mostly covered with shrubs, which would have little effect in reducing erosion and sediments eroded from young soils could reach the river. During interglacials, the upper catchment is covered with woodlands. Tree roots contribute to significantly decrease erosion in the headwaters such that little erosion would occur there. Instead, the sediment budget of the river would be dominated by bank erosion in the alluvial plain, as it is observed for the modern river channel (Wallbrink et al., 1998).

These results suggest that during the last glacial cycle, changes in sediment dynamics have been controlled by catchment vegetation dynamics. This implies that climate may impact erosion indirectly by dictating the type and density of vegetation coverage in the catchment. This emphasizes the role of living organisms on landscape evolution (Dietrich and Perron, 2006), illustrated here over a glacial cycle.

Associated References

  • DePaolo, D.J., Maher, K., Christensen, J.N. and McManus, J., 2006. Sediment transport time measured with U-series isotopes: Results from ODP North Atlantic drift site 984. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 248(1-2): 394-410.
  • Dosseto, A., Bourdon, B. and Turner, S.P., 2008a. Uranium-series isotopes in river materials: Insights into the timescales of erosion and sediment transport. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 265(1-2): 1-17.
  • Dosseto, A., Maher, K., Hesse, P., Fryirs, K. and Turner, S.P., in review. Vegetation over climatic control on sediment dynamics. Geology.
  • Dosseto, A., Turner, S.P., Hesse, P., Maher, K. and Fryirs, K., 2008b. Vegetation over hydrologic control of sediment transport over the past 100,000 yr. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta, 72(12): Suppl. 1.
  • von Blanckenburg, F., 2006. The control mechanisms of erosion and weathering at basin scale from cosmogenic nuclides in river sediment. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 242(3-4): 224-239.
  • Wallbrink, P.J., Murray, A.S., Olley, J.M. and Olive, L.J., 1998. Determining sources and transit times of suspended sediment in the Murrumbidgee River, New South Wales, Australia, using fallout 137Cs and 210Pb. Water Resources Research, 34(4): 879-887.