More on the Younger Dryas causal mechanism

The divergence of opinion on why a millennium-long return to glacial conditions began 12.8 thousand years recently deepened. The Younger Dryas stadial was an unprecedented event that halted and even reversed the human recolonisation of mid- to high northern latitudes after the end of the last ice age. Its inception was phenomenally rapid, taking a couple of decades to as little as perhaps a few years. The first plausible explanation was put forward by Wallace Broecker in 1989, who looked to explosive release of meltwater trapped in glacial lakes astride the Canadian-US border along the present St Lawrence River Valley, effectively flooding the source of NADW with a surface layer of low-density, low-salinity water. This, he suggested, would have shut down the thermohaline circulation in the North Atlantic. This is currently driven by cooling of salty surface water brought from the tropics to the Arctic Ocean by the Gulf Stream so that the resulting increase in density causes it to sink and thereby drive this part of the ocean water ‘conveyor’ system. A massive freshwater influx would prevent sinking and shut down the Gulf Stream, with the obvious effect of cooling high northern latitudes allowing ice caps to return to the surrounding continents. Yet Broecker’s St Lawrence flood mechanism was flawed by lack of evidence and the knowledge that a well-documented flood along that valley a thousand years before had raise se level by 20 m with no climatic effect. In 2005 clear evidence was found for a huge glacial outburst flood directly to the Arctic Ocean at around 12.8 ka that had followed Canada’s MacKenzie River; a route that would force low-density seawater to the very source of North Atlantic Deep Water through the Fram Straits, thereby stopping thermohaline circulation.

The year 2007 saw the emergence of a totally different account (see Whizz-bang view of Younger Dryas, July 2007; Impact cause for Younger Dryas draws flak, May 2008) centring on evidence for a 12.8 ka major impact in the form of excess iridium; spherules; fullerenes and evidence for huge wildfires in soils directly above the last known occurrences of the superbly crafted tools known as Clovis points – the hallmark of the earliest known humans in North America. Later (see Comet slew large mammals of the Americas?, March 2009) the same team reported minute diamonds from the same soils along with evidence for extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna; a view that was panned unmercifully.  Like the yet-to-be-found ‘end-Permian impact’ previously proposed by the same team, no crater of Younger Dryas age was then known. However, in 2018, ice-penetrating radar surveys revealed a convincing, 31 km wide subglacial impact structure beneath the Greenland ice cap, that is directly overlain by ice of Holocene (<11.7 ka) age. This reopened the case for an extraterrestrial origin for the Younger Dryas, followed by evidence from Chile for 12.8 ka wildfires presented by a team that includes academics who first made claims of an impact cause.

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Colour-coded subglacial topography from radar sounding over the Hiawatha Glacier of NW Greenland (Credit: Kjaer et al. 2018; Fig. 1D)

Last week, the impact-hungry team provided further evidence in lake-bed sediments from South Carolina, USA, which they have dated using an advanced approach to the radiocarbon method (Moore, C.R. and 16 others 2019. Sediment Cores from White Pond, South Carolina, contain a Platinum Anomaly, Pyrogenic Carbon Peak, and Coprophilous Spore Decline at 12.8 ka. Nature Scientific Reports, v. 9, online 15121; DOI: 10.1038/s41598-019-51552-8). This centres on a large spike in platinum and palladium, which they date to 12,785 ± 58 years before present; i.e. the start of the Younger Dryas. Preceding it is a peak in soot with a distinctive δ13C value attributed to wildfires (12, 838 ± 103 years b.p), and is followed by a peak in nitrogen isotopes (δ15N), indicating environmental changes, and a sharp decline in spores (12,752 ± 54 years b.p) attributed to fungi that consume herbivore dung – a sign of a decline in the local megafauna. In other words, a confirmation of previous findings at the Clovis site– but no diamonds. The variations in different parameters are based on 30 to 35 samples (each about 2 cm long) from about 0.8 m of sediment core, so it is curious that most of the data are presented as continuous curves. That issue may become the focus of criticism, as may the need for confirmation from other lake-bed cores from a wider number of localities. With such polarised views on a crucial episode in recent geological and biological history critical scrutiny is sure to come.

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