Hydrothermal influences on the Holocene environmental history of central Yellowstone National Park

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


The postglacial vegetation history of Yellowstone National Park is well established by past paleoecological studies, but the role of hydrothermal activity--pervasive in areas of the park--in that history is poorly understood. To address this unknown, pollen and charcoal records were examined from lake sediment cores at multiple sites in central Yellowstone National Park to reconstruct Holocene vegetation. First, radiocarbon ages obtained from pollen concentrates were compared with other age controls at Yellowstone Lake, revealing ages that were up to 4300 cal years too old. Erroneous ages were due to either old carbon contamination from magmatic or hydrothermally degassed CO 2 or old pollen reworked from an unknown source. Second, Holocene vegetation and fire history were reconstructed from a Yellowstone Lake sediment core. The record was characterized by gradually increasing closure or extent of Pinus contorta forest and increasing fire activity to the present, consistent with reduced summer insolation creating cooler, effectively wetter conditions in central Yellowstone National Park. No impact of hydrothermal activity was detected in the regional Holocene-long vegetation and fire histories. Third, Holocene vegetation and fire history were studied at Goose Lake in Lower Geyser Basin, an area with abundant modern hydrothermal activity. The vegetation and fire history diverged from the regional trend at 3800 cal yr BP, synchronous with geochemical indicators indicating reorganization of hydrothermal activity in the basin, suggesting an abrupt ecological response to shifting hydrothermal activity. Finally, a variety of volcanic and hydrothermal processes were investigated as disturbances in the Northern Rocky Mountains and Yellowstone National Park through high-resolution pollen analysis. Hydrothermal explosion deposits were found to be synchronous with conifer morality, in some records, indicating that the effects of hydrothermal explosions are local and short-lived. At a regional scale, it is evident that vegetation changes were chiefly responding to millennial-scale, insolation-driven climate change. However, the impacts of hydrothermal activity were locally important where pervasive, as in Lower Geyser Basin, and in areas recently affected by hydrothermal explosions.




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