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Late Quaternary Ice Age Climates of Tropical Australasia: Interpretations and Reconstructions

  • P.J. Webster (a1) and N.A. Streten (a2)


Paleoecological and paleogeographical evidence is used to mold a framework from which the basic parameters of the late Quaternary glacial-age climate of tropical Australasia can be inferred. The theory of physical circulations, a knowledge of present tropical circulation patterns, and a study of anomalous and extreme events in the present era are used to reemphasize the view of a less pluvial tropical and subtropical zone at that time. Cooler sea-surface temperature, cooler trades, and the effect of the then exposed land areas are indicated as instrumental in producing drier conditions. Tropical areas west of Cape York Peninsula and Torres Strait were subject to fewer tropical disturbances and were similar to the present tropical savannah of the northern interior of Australia. Such effects would exist even without shifts in major climatic zones, although they are shown to be consistent with an equatorward shift of the westerlies brought about by the increased pole to equator temperature gradient. Paleoenvironmental evidence from the New Guinea Highlands and southeastern Australia suggests that their climates were anomalous. Substantial data of the glacial period in New Guinea show snow lines to be 1000 to 1500 m lower than at present which matches a 6 to 8°C lowering of temperature in highland New Guinea. The deep-sea cores of the CLIMAP Project suggest a mere 2°C cooling of the surrounding tropical oceans. It is shown that it is highly unlikely that an upper-level decrease in temperature of 6 to 8°C could be maintained while the surface cools by only 2°C. It is suggested that either the temperature of the tropical oceans of the western Pacific were overestimated by CLIMAP or that cold air incursions from higher latitudes (for which some analogs exist today) were sufficiently frequent to allow the maintenance of a snow line well below the freezing level of the ancient ambient tropical atmosphere. It is shown that in southeastern Australia considerable evidence of aridity cannot be explained by merely displacing the westerlies more equatorward. To account for the aridity, a new circulation pattern is proposed. Noting that there is CLIMAP evidence of preferred equatorward extension of sea ice, a pattern is postulated that displays only small seasonal change and is characterized by an enhanced Indian Ocean trough, marked ridging at eastern Australian longitudes, and a further trough in the western Tasman. Such a basic flow is consistent with (i) a low rainfall over southeastern Australia, (ii) frequent cold outbreak conditions favorable for the maintenance of the New Guinea glaciers, and (iii) considerable precipitation to nourish the ice caps of Tasmania and the Australian and New Zeland Alps.



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