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Unsaturated zones as archives of past climates: toward a new proxy for continental regions

By W.M. Edmunds and S. Tyler

Abstract

Natural chemical and isotopic tracers contained in unsaturated-zone moisture profiles are being developed as potential new archives for reconstructing recharge history, as well as palaeoclimatic or palaeobotanical conditions over time scales ranging from 20–120,000 years. Results worldwide to date are reviewed, and examples from northern Africa and the western USA are discussed in detail. Encouraging results are obtained from relatively homogeneous deposits such as Quaternary dune sands, where Cl profiles are compared both with the instrumental record, such as rainfall and river-gauging records, and 3H profiles. Model studies have helped to define the persistence time of unsaturated-zone signals, where evidence of a 20-year event such as the Sahel drought may persist for 1,000 years. \ud Significant questions remain regarding the assumptions used in interpreting profiles, particularly the extent to which preferential flow may occur, transient flow phenomena, and stability of tracer-input function. Unsaturated zones that exhibit strong preferential flow are probably unsuitable as archives. Questions remain also on the assumption that flow remains downward, especially in deep unsaturated zones where non-isothermal vapour transport may occur. Estimation of depositional flux for Cl and other parameters is probably the greatest source of uncertainty, both at the spatial scale and also in the long term. Advances are being made in all areas, however, and the use of multiple tracers (chemical, especially Cl and NO3) and isotopic signals (δ18O, δ2H, 36Cl), together with soil hydraulic properties, is promising for palaeohydrological reconstruction

Publisher: Springer
Year: 2002
DOI identifier: 10.1007/s10040-001-0180-6
OAI identifier: oai:nora.nerc.ac.uk:12295
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