Articles | Volume 10, issue 3
Biogeosciences, 10, 2001–2010, 2013
Biogeosciences, 10, 2001–2010, 2013

Research article 22 Mar 2013

Research article | 22 Mar 2013

Stable isotope and modelling evidence for CO2 as a driver of glacial–interglacial vegetation shifts in southern Africa

F. J. Bragg1,2, I. C. Prentice1,3,4, S. P. Harrison2,3, G. Eglinton1,5,6, P. N. Foster1, F. Rommerskirchen7,8, and J. Rullkötter7 F. J. Bragg et al.
  • 1Department of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol, Wills Memorial Building, Bristol BS8 1RJ, UK
  • 2School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1SS, UK
  • 3Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, North Ryde, NSW 2109, Australia
  • 4Grantham Institute for Climate Change and Department of Life Sciences, Imperial College, Silwood Park Campus, Ascot SL5 7PY, UK
  • 5Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH 03755, USA
  • 6Department of Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, 266 Woods Hole Road, Woods Hole, MA 02543-1050, USA
  • 7Institute for Chemistry and Biology of the Marine Environment (ICBM), Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg, P.O. Box 2503, 26111 Oldenburg, Germany
  • 8MARUM, University of Bremen, Leobener Straße, 28359 Bremen, Germany

Abstract. Atmospheric CO2 concentration is hypothesized to influence vegetation distribution via tree–grass competition, with higher CO2 concentrations favouring trees. The stable carbon isotope (δ13C) signature of vegetation is influenced by the relative importance of C4 plants (including most tropical grasses) and C3 plants (including nearly all trees), and the degree of stomatal closure – a response to aridity – in C3 plants. Compound-specific δ13C analyses of leaf-wax biomarkers in sediment cores of an offshore South Atlantic transect are used here as a record of vegetation changes in subequatorial Africa. These data suggest a large increase in C3 relative to C4 plant dominance after the Last Glacial Maximum. Using a process-based biogeography model that explicitly simulates 13C discrimination, it is shown that precipitation and temperature changes cannot explain the observed shift in δ13C values. The physiological effect of increasing CO2 concentration is decisive, altering the C3/C4 balance and bringing the simulated and observed δ13C values into line.

It is concluded that CO2 concentration itself was a key agent of vegetation change in tropical southern Africa during the last glacial–interglacial transition. Two additional inferences follow. First, long-term variations in terrestrial δ13Cvalues are not simply a proxy for regional rainfall, as has sometimes been assumed. Although precipitation and temperature changes have had major effects on vegetation in many regions of the world during the period between the Last Glacial Maximum and recent times, CO2 effects must also be taken into account, especially when reconstructing changes in climate between glacial and interglacial states. Second, rising CO2 concentration today is likely to be influencing tree–grass competition in a similar way, and thus contributing to the "woody thickening" observed in savannas worldwide. This second inference points to the importance of experiments to determine how vegetation composition in savannas is likely to be influenced by the continuing rise of CO2 concentration.

Final-revised paper