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Scientists produce NZ’s first 34 million year land-based climate record based on fossil tree pollen - 01/02/2017

More than 2000 samples of fossilised tree pollen stored in Lower Hutt are helping scientists get a fuller picture of southern latitude climate over the past 34 million years covering a period when New Zealand was six to eight degrees Celsius warmer than today.

The research, published this month in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters, is based on fossilised tree pollen that scientists have extracted from sedimentary rocks from around New Zealand over the past 60 years.

By comparing the pollen found in the rocks to the modern distribution of closely-related trees, the scientists were able to reconstruct changes in air temperature and rainfall from Oligocene time (34 million years ago) to the present day. This is the first time such a long record of New Zealand terrestrial climate has been compiled in this way.

Palynologist Joe Prebble, of GNS Science, with the new pollen-based New Zealand climate record (left), and a false-colour  scanning electron microscope image of a pollen of the daisy family. Pollen of this family first appears in the New Zealand fossil  record about 25 million years ago. Photo: Margaret Low – GNS Science.

Palynologist Joe Prebble, of GNS Science, with the new pollen-based New Zealand climate record (left), and a false-colour scanning electron microscope image of a pollen of the daisy family. Pollen of this family first appears in the New Zealand fossil record about 25 million years ago. Photo: Margaret Low – GNS Science. More images at https://vml.gns.cri.nz/

In their database, the scientists have used pollen from about 75 plant genera – mostly trees – and the distribution of different species tells a story about temperature and rainfall in different epochs in New Zealand’s history. Prominent in this study were pollen from tawhai and other southern beeches, some of which are today restricted to New Caledonia and New Guinea, rimu, rewarewa, and other members of the family Proteaceae that are today only found in Australia.

The pollen grains are microscopic and generally need to be magnified several hundred times for meaningful study by scientists.

“Other than computer climate models, these types of fossil climate records are the only way we have to understand how climate responded to elevated carbon dioxide concentrations in the past, and might respond in the future,” said palynologist Joe Prebble of GNS Science, the lead author of the study.

“Our new results fill a gap in our understanding of New Zealand climate during the elevated carbon dioxide conditions of the middle Miocene [15 million years ago], and how the climate subsequently cooled,” Dr Prebble said.

Their record shows a close coupling of New Zealand temperature with changes in Antarctic climate, particularly after the Antarctic ice sheet enlarged substantially about 14 million years ago.

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As well as helping us to understand past climate, it is an essential tool for assessing the age of rocks during exploration for minerals and petroleum, and for understanding the evolution of our unique plants and animals

Dr Joe Prebble

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Before 14 million years ago, a time interval known as the “Miocene Climatic Optimum”, mean annual temperatures in New Zealand ranged between 18oC in the south and 21oC in the north.

For comparison, modern mean annual temperatures in New Zealand range between 10oC and 16oC. The elevated temperatures in the Miocene occurred when the New Zealand landmass was further south than today.

During the Miocene, the islands of New Zealand were further south; between the latitudes of Christchurch and Campbell Island.

The pollen samples used for this work were taken from a publically accessible national database of New Zealand fossils and represent observations made by many scientists.

“This database of fossil observations is a really essential resource to help us answer a range of questions about New Zealand’s natural history,” Dr Prebble said.

“As well as helping us to understand past climate, it is an essential tool for assessing the age of rocks during exploration for minerals and petroleum, and for understanding the evolution of our unique plants and animals.”