Paleoenvironmental analyses of an organic deposit from an erosional landscape remnant, Arctic Coastal Plain of Alaska

TitlePaleoenvironmental analyses of an organic deposit from an erosional landscape remnant, Arctic Coastal Plain of Alaska
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2005
AuthorsEisner, WR, Bockheim, JG, Hinkel, KM, Brown, TA, Nelson, FE, Peterson, KM, Jones, BM
JournalPalaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology
Date Published2005/2/25
Keywordsalaska, Arctic, Barrow, dating, erosional remnant, holocene, organic material, paleo surface, paleoenvironment, paleogeography, Permafrost, sediment, thermal erosion, Thermokarst, tundra

The dominant landscape process on the Arctic Coastal Plain of northern Alaska is the formation and drainage of thaw lakes. Lakes and drained thaw-lake basins account for approximately 75% of the modern surface expression of the Barrow Peninsula. The thaw-lake cycle usually obliterates lacustrine or peat sediments from previous cycles, which could otherwise be used for paleoecological reconstruction of long-term landscape and vegetation changes. Several possible erosional remnants of a former topographic surface that predates the formation of the thaw lakes have been tentatively identified. These remnants are characterized by a higher elevation, a thick organic layer with very high ground ice content in the upper permafrost and a plant community somewhat atypical of the region. Ten soil cores were collected from one site, and one core was intensively sampled for soil organic carbon content, pollen analysis and 14C dating. The lowest level of the organic sediments represents the earliest phase of plant growth and dates to ca. 9000 cal BP. Palynological evidence indicates the presence of mesic shrub tundra (including sedge, birch, willow and heath vegetation), and microfossil indicators point to wetter eutrophic conditions during this period. Carbon accumulation was rapid due to high net primary productivity in a relatively nutrient-rich environment. These results are interpreted as the local response to ameliorating climate during the early Holocene. The middle Holocene portion of the record contains an unconformity, indicating that between 8200 and 4200 cal BP sediments were eroded from the site, presumably in response to wind activity during a drier period centered around 4500 cal BP. The modern vegetation community of the erosional remnant was established after 4200 cal BP and peat growth resumed. During the late Holocene, carbon accumulation rates (CARs) were greatly reduced in response to the combined effects of declining productivity associated with climatic cooling, and increased nutrient stress as paludification and permafrost aggradation sequestered mineral nutrients.