Guest Blog: How Speleothems Are Used To Determine Past Climates?

About author: Alex Graham is an undergraduate student at University of Newcastle, Australia. He is interested in Geology as a whole but his major interests include fluvial processes, karst systems and ocean science. During his visit to New Zealand, he has obeserved the glow worms in Waitomo Caves and spelunking in Nikau Caves.

Speleothems, more commonly known as stalactites or stalagmites, consist of calcium carbonate (calcite or aragonite) crystals of various dimensions, ranging from just a few micrometers to several centimetres in length, which generally have their growth axis perpendicular to the growth surface. Speleothems are formed through the deposition of calcium carbonate minerals in karst systems, providing archives of information on past climates, vegetation types and hydrology, particularly groundwater and precipitation. However, they can also provide information on anthropogenic impacts, landscape evolution, volcanism and tectonic evolution in mineral deposits formed in cave systems.

Stalagmite Formation
Rainfall containing carbonic acid weathers the rock unit (generally either limestone or dolomite) and seeps into the cracks, forming caverns and karst systems. The groundwater, percolating through such cracks and caverns, also contains dissolved calcium bicarbonate. The dripping action of these groundwater droplets is the driving force behind the deposition of speleothems in caves.
Core drilling of an active stalagmite in Hang Chuot cave.
Speleothems are mainly studied as paleoclimate indicators, providing clues to past precipitation, temperature and vegetation changes over the past »500,000 years. Radioisotopic dating of speleothems is the primary method used by researchers to find annual variations in temperature. Carbon isotopes (d^13C) reflect C3/C4 plant compositions and plant productivity, where increased plant productivity may indicate greater amounts of rainfall and carbon dioxide absorption. Thus, a larger carbon absorption can be reflective of a greater atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases. On the other hand, oxygen isotopes (d^8O) provide researchers with past rainfall temperatures and quantified levels of precipitation, both of which are used to determine the nature of past climates.


Stalactite and stalagmite growth rates also indicate the climatic variations in rainfall over time, with this variation directly influencing the growth of ring formations on speleothems. Closed ring formations are indicative of little rainfall or even drought, where-as wider spaced ring formations indicate periods of heavy rainfall or flooding. These ring formations thus enable researchers to potentially predict and model the occurrence of future climatic patterns, based off the atmospheric signals extrapolated from speleothems. Researchers also use Uranium –Thorium radioisotopic dating, to determine the age of speleothems in karst formations. Once the layers have been accurately dated, researchers record the level of variance in groundwater levels over the lifetime of the karst formation. Hydrogeologists specialise in such areas of quantitative research. As a result, speleothems are widely regarded as a crucial geological feature that provide useful information for researchers studying past climates, vegetation types and hydrology.


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