Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Department of


Date of this Version



Published (as Chapter 13) in Françoise Vimeux, Florence Sylvestre, & Myriam Khodri (eds.). Past Climate Variability in South America and Surrounding Regions: From the Last Glacial Maximum to the Holocene, Developments in Paleoenvironmental Research 14 (Springer, 2009), pp. 301–322; doi: 10.1007/978-90-481-2672-9_13 Copyright © 2009 Springer Science+Business Media B.V. Used by permission.


This paper serves two purposes: to review current ideas about the nature and forcing of decadal to millennial scale precipitation variation in the southern tropics of South America during the late Quaternary and to present a new methodology for the reconstruction of precipitation as applied to a Holocene stable isotopic record of carbonate sediments in a tropical Andean lake, Lago Umayo, Peru. The basic thesis of the first part of the paper is that, although modern instrumental records suffice for deducing climate variability at decadal and shorter time scales, these records cannot adequately characterize the nature and forcing of lower-frequency climate variation. Understanding the nature of multi-decadal to millennial-scale climate variation and the mechanisms of large abrupt climate change is best derived from paleoclimatic time series. Tropical Atlantic sea-surface temperature variation is a significant control on tropical South American paleoclimate at these longer time scales. In the second part of the paper, an original method is presented for quantitatively reconstructing precipitation. This method utilizes the well-known relationship between the stable isotopic composition of precipitation and the amount of precipitation, a relationship that is highly significant in many tropical locales. Due to many simplifying assumptions, the reconstruction should be considered to be tentative.

A ~12% increase in precipitation (~570 to 650 mm a–1) at 4750 cal year BP is consistent with the 6% increase in summer insolation at this latitude over the same period. However, the increase in precipitation was neither unidirectional nor gradual. Instead, every 240 years on average, precipitation increased or decreased by at least ~8% for periods lasting on average 100 years. The largest of these events had ~15% positive or negative departures from the long-term mean precipitation. These southern tropical wet events apparently coincided with periods of low sea-surface temperatures in the high-latitude North Atlantic, supporting a hypothesis of a tropical North Atlantic sea-surface temperature control on tropical South American precipitation at decadal to millennial scales.