National Aeronautics and Space Administration


Date of this Version



Published in Quaternary Science Reviews 21 (2002).


Many of the physical and biological processes that characterize arctic ecosystems are unique to high latitudes, and their sensitivities to climate change are poorly understood. Stratigraphic records of land–surface processes and vegetation change in the Arctic Foothills of northern Alaska reveal how tundra landscapes responded to climatic changes between 13,000 and 8000 14Cyr BP. Peat deposition began and shrub vegetation became widespread ca. 12,500 14Cyr BP, probably in response to the advent of warmer and wetter climate. Increased slope erosion caused rapid alluviation in valleys, and Populus trees spread northward along braided floodplains before 11,000 14Cyr BP. Lake levels fell and streams incised their floodplains during the Younger Dryas (YD) (11,000– 10,000 14Cyr BP). A hiatus in records of Populus suggest that its geographic range contracted, and pollen records of other species suggest a cooler and drier climate during this interval. Basal peats dating to the YD are rare, suggesting that rates of paludification slowed. Immediately after 10,000 14Cyr BP, lake levels rose, streams aggraded rapidly again, intense solifluction occurred, and Populus re-invaded the area. Moist acidic tundra vegetation was widespread by 8500 14Cyr BP along with wet, organic-rich soils. Most of these landscape-scale effects of climatic change involved changes in moisture. Although low temperature is the most conspicuous feature of arctic climate, shifts in effective moisture may be the proximate cause for many of the impacts that climate change has in arctic regions.