Geochemical tools and paleoclimate clues : multi-molecular and isotopic investigations of tropical marine sediments and alpine ice

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Makou, Matthew C.
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Cariaco Basin
Peru Margin
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Marine sediments
South American climate has undergone dramatic changes since the last glacial period, as evidenced from Cariaco Basin (Venezuelan coast) and Peru Margin marine sediment biomarker records. Compounds derived from vascular plant leaf waxes and delivered to the marine sedimentary environment, including long-chain (C24-C32) nalkanoic acids, were used as proxies for terrestrial vegetation type, aridity, and atmospheric circulation. Marine biomarkers, such as sterols and phytol, were used to reconstruct productivity in the Peru Margin upwelling zone, where sedimentary conditions are not conducive to the preservation of foraminifera. Through the use of organic molecular isotopic techniques and multi-molecular stratigraphy, a great deal can be learned about communities of marine organisms and terrestrial plants that existed in the past and the environments in which they lived. Vascular plant leaf wax carbon and hydrogen isotopic records were generated from n-alkanoic acids preserved in Cariaco Basin marine sediments. These records were compared to previously established pollen and climate records and were found to parallel local millennial-scale climate changes between the late Glacial and Preboreal periods, which were characterized by migrations of the inter-tropical convergence zone. Differences in δD between C16-C18 and C24-C30 n-alkanoic acids suggest a marine source for the shorter chain lengths and a terrestrial source for the longer chains. Stacked δD and δ13C records both exhibited isotopic enrichment during the late Glacial and Younger Dryas periods and depletion during the Bølling-Allerød and Preboreal periods. If interpreted as an aridity proxy, the δD record is in agreement with Cariaco Basin sediment grey scale records, suggesting that the late Glacial and Younger Dryas were more arid than the Bølling-Allerød and Preboreal periods. n-Alkanoic acid δ13C, which is a proxy for C3 versus C4 plant type, indicates that C3 plants predominated in this area of the tropics during warm and wet periods, such as the Bølling-Allerød and the Holocene, and C4 plants proliferated during cooler and more arid periods, such as the Glacial and Younger Dryas. The biomarker δ13C record agrees with pollen data previously developed from Cariaco Basin sediments, confirming that leaf wax compounds preserved in marine sediments can accurately record terrestrial vegetation changes. Analytical methods utilizing stir bar sorptive extraction (SBSE) and thermal desorption were developed and applied to investigate lipid organic matter in a suite of alpine ice cores. These methods permit use of small volume (10-30 ml) samples, as would be required for high-resolution down-core analyses. SBSE involves using a polymer coated stir bar to extract organic matter from aqueous samples, after which it is loaded directly into a thermal desorption unit and the organic matter transferred in its entirety to a gas chromatograph inlet. To test these methods and the organic content of tropical ice, post-industrial samples from two South American, two Asian, and one African ice core were analyzed. Compounds identified in the modern ice core samples included natural and anthropogenic biomarkers such as n-alkanes, n-alkanoic acids, nalkyl amides and nitriles, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and diterpenoids. Variability in the distributions of these compounds between different cores demonstrated that the lipid organic fraction in each core was representative of mostly local inputs. To further investigate natural inputs, several pre-industrial samples were analyzed from the Sajama ice core in the Andes and The Puruogangri core on the Tibetan Plateau. Inputs of terrestrial vegetation combustion biomarkers such as PAHs, diterpenoids, and alkyl amides were consistent with periods of enhanced aridity in each core. The results of this investigation demonstrate the utility of the methodology, which could now be applied to generate very high-resolution biomarker records from tropical ice cores. Gas chromatography/time-of-flight mass spectrometry (GC/TOF-MS) was used to generate a high-resolution, multi-molecular organic biomarker record from Peru Margin sediments (~11oS, 252 m water depth) for the last 15 ka. Because of their position beneath the oxygen minimum zone of a productive upwelling region, these sediments contain a wealth of compounds that can be exploited as paleoclimate indicators. TOF-MS and fast GC techniques allowed me to generate this record in a short amount of time and without employing the traditional suite of purification techniques. Before about 9 ka, organic carbon and biomarker concentration records exhibited similar variability, implying a forcing mechanism that affected input and/or preservation of both marine and terrestrial organic matter, such as large-scale climate change. Organic carbon and biomarker abundances then systematically increased throughout the Holocene and exhibited higher frequency variability, suggesting overall enhanced productivity from rapidly evolving planktonic communities. Similar patterns of variability between bacterial hopanol, sterol degradation product, and primary productivity biomarker records suggest that the productivity biomarkers are recording sea surface and water column processes, and are not significantly biased by sedimentary diagenesis. Low bound sulfur content in lipid extracts and a lack of observed sulfur-containing compounds argue against significant sulfurization and resultant biomarker sequestration in 1228D sediments. Factor analysis provided a statistical means of separating terrestrial and marine organic inputs, and reinforced the interpretations that very long chain n-alkanoic acids (C30-C32) are terrestrially derived and sterol compounds primarily represent marine algal inputs. In all, the biomarker records suggest millennial-scale changes in upwelling strength superimposed on longer-term trends, with additional variability in contributions from specific precursors, such as dinoflagellates. Terrestrial leaf wax compounds also exhibited high-amplitude, millennial-scale variability, but with a different pattern of change than the marine inputs. GC/TOF-MS was shown to be a useful tool for generating high-resolution records of the type necessary to understand the relationships between biomarkers in a complex and sensitive depositional environment such as the Peru Margin. Climate signals embedded in the Peru Margin biomarker records provided clues as to the productivity and upwelling histories of the Peru Margin, as well as regional terrestrial vegetation. Elevated concentrations of marine biomarkers suggest enhanced upwelling and productivity from about 6.5 ka to the present on the Peru Margin, with lower-amplitude millennial-scale variations occurring throughout this period. Enhanced dinosterol abundances after 6.5 ka are consistent with greater occurrences and/or strength of El Niño, while concurrently enhanced upwelling suggests a parallel increase in La Niña activity. Similar timing of mid to late Holocene variability between Peru Margin marine biomarker records, a faunal sea surface temperature record from the eastern tropical Atlantic, and Andean paleoclimate records suggests strong climate links between these regions of the tropics, likely driven by broad-scale changes in El Niño and the Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and trade wind strength. The C30 n-alkanoic acid, which is representative of vascular plant leaf wax inputs, exhibited millennial-scale variability superimposed on longer-term trends that may be related to aridity, assuming fluvial transport of terrestrial material. n-Alkanoic acid δ13C is generally enriched during periods of enhanced leaf wax abundance, consistent with increased inputs of C4 plant material at these times.
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution February 2006
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Makou, M. C. (2006). Geochemical tools and paleoclimate clues : multi-molecular and isotopic investigations of tropical marine sediments and alpine ice [Doctoral thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution]. Woods Hole Open Access Server.
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