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Indonesian vegetation response to changes in rainfall seasonality over the past 25,000 years


The hydrologic response to climate forcing in the Indo-Pacific warm pool region has varied spatially over the past 25,000 years1,2,3,4,5. For example, drier conditions are inferred on Java and Borneo for the period following the end of the Last Glacial Maximum, whereas wetter conditions are reconstructed for northwest Australia4. The response of vegetation to these past rainfall variations is poorly constrained. Using a suite of 30 surface marine sediment samples from throughout the Indo-Pacific warm pool, we demonstrate that today the stable isotopic composition of vascular plant fatty acids (δ13Cfa) reflects the regional vegetation composition. This in turn is controlled by the seasonality of rainfall consistent with dry season water stress6. Applying this proxy in a sediment core from offshore northeast Borneo, we show broadly similar vegetation cover during the Last Glacial Maximum and the Holocene, suggesting that, despite generally drier glacial conditions1,7, there was no pronounced dry season. In contrast, δ13Cfa and pollen data from a core off the coast of Sumba indicate an expansion of C4 herbs during the most recent glaciation, implying enhanced aridity and water stress during the dry season. Holocene vegetation trends are also consistent with a response to dry season water stress. We therefore conclude that vegetation in tropical monsoon regions is susceptible to increases in water stress arising from an enhanced seasonality of rainfall, as has occurred8 in past decades.

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Figure 1: Histogram of mean monthly rainfall averaged over 1979–201026.
Figure 2: Distribution of the δ13C value of the C30n-alkanoic fatty acid (δ13Cfa) in surface sediments from the IPWP.
Figure 3: Coretop δ13Cfa versus precipitation data on nearby land26.
Figure 4: Downcore δ13Cfa compared to pollen data from core 69-3 and IPWP speleothem δ18O records.


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This research was supported by NSF grants ABR-86074300 and OCE-1333387, and BMBF grant PABESIA. X. Philippon, C. Johnson, S. Sylva, D. Montluçon, K. A. Rose and A. Gorin provided invaluable technical assistance. W. Kuhnt generously shared Timor Sea core-top samples from cruise SO-185.

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D.W.O. designed the study with input from all co-authors. ND generated the δ13Cfa data, with guidance from V.V.G., J.E.T. and T.I.E.. S.v.d.K. generated the pollen data. N.D. and D.W.O. wrote the paper with input from all co-authors.

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Correspondence to Nathalie Dubois or Delia W. Oppo.

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Dubois, N., Oppo, D., Galy, V. et al. Indonesian vegetation response to changes in rainfall seasonality over the past 25,000 years. Nature Geosci 7, 513–517 (2014).

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