Late Holocene climate variability and coastal change of the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico

The following dissertation contains three studies that use sediment cores to reconstruct past changes in the climate and environment of a tropical lagoon system. These studies provide insight into past droughts and coastal change during geologically recent climate variability and sea-level rise by investigating relationships between geochemical and biological parameters sensitive to different processes occurring on the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico.

Chapter one is a foraminiferal fossil record reconstruction of the Celestun Lagoon environment, assessing ecologic response to a change in lagoon salinity and vegetation over the Late Holocene (5,300 years to present). The record and modern environment suggests foraminiferal community composition changes predictably with salinity, but lagoon salinity decreased primarily from restriction of seawater input to the lagoon, and hence reduced mixing between groundwater and seawater, rather than climate-induced increase of groundwater discharge, though climate is a secondary control. The cause of reduced mixing appears to be accumulation of barrier islands and sand spits that progressively isolated the northern lagoon, reducing mixing between groundwater discharge and seawater and shifting the environment from an open marine coast to estuarine lagoon. The transition was accompanied by expansion of the mangrove forest fringing the coastline. Superimposed on this trend, excursions of foraminifera taxa signify higher salinity coinciding with regionally dry periods and indicate that climate is a second-order control on lagoon mean salinity.

Chapter two is a more detailed paleosalinity reconstruction where relations between modern lagoon salinity and both trace metals and isotopes in foraminiferal tests are applied to samples from cores collected along a transect from the northern to southern lagoon. The benthic species Ammonia parkinsoniana is used due to its abundance throughout the lagoon, and paleosalinity tracers recorded in A. parkinsoniana calcite tests are the elemental ratios Sr/Ca, and Ba/Ca and isotopes δ18O and 87Sr/86Sr. Ba/Ca ratios exhibit the highest correlation with salinity while δ18O and 87Sr/86Sr indicate two types of groundwater discharge to the lagoon—a fresh and a brackish source. A mixing model constructed from δ18O and 87Sr/86Sr show that long-term decrease in salinity was due to increased proportions of the brackish groundwater endmember—consistent with the Chapter 1—and decreases in the freshwater endmember coincide with major dry periods in the Yucatan recorded in other paleoclimate archives of the region. Furthermore, sedimentation rates increase briefly at 3,400 and 2,000 years ago, time periods characterized by large-scale reorganization of atmospheric and oceanic currents in the North Atlantic with atmospheric teleconnections to tropical climate. These increases in accumulation rate are interpreted as periods of rapid barrier island accumulation as trade winds and the Loop Current weaken in the Gulf of Mexico and deposit sediments during longshore drift. Chapter two suggests that atmospheric patterns resulting in drought in the Yucatan Peninsula also result in rapid sedimentation and apparent decrease in salinity in coastal lagoons, thus demonstrating the value of a multi-proxy approach in reconstructing paleoenvironmental history in dynamic coastal environments.

Chapter three contributes data and a new hypothesis to the growing body of literature on the boron isotope system. The boron isotope ratio 11B/10B records pH of ambient water in the carbonate shells, proving to be a powerful tool in reconstructing past ocean acidification and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. However, δ11B has not previously been used as a proxy for low-pH spring water discharge. In Celestun Lagoon, boron measurements in A. parkinsoniana are characterized by high variability both in surface sediments along the lagoon and in downcore samples and exhibit weak but significant relationships with the paleosalinity proxies 87Sr/86Sr and Ba/Ca and with the vegetation proxy δ13C. Lower pH caused by respiration of organic matter, recorded in δ13C of calcite, appears to contribute to δ11B variability, yet mean δ11B values of calcite reflect calculated δ11B values of borate based on present understanding of boron systematics, thus indicating that spring discharge exerts a first-order control on lagoon pH and δ11B recorded in foraminifera. This finding is of particular interest to the deep-time paleocommunity because prior to the evolution of foraminifera, and because deep sea sediments older than 180 million years are rare, many calcareous fossils available for δ11B analysis thrived in shallow marine habitats. As efforts continue to find deep-time analogs to modern ocean acidification, low-pH groundwater discharge in coastal zones may complicate interpretations of δ11B results but may be addressed by a rigorous multi-proxy approach.

This dissertation provides a record of coastal and climate change during recent periods of climate variability and sea-level rise over the last 5,000 years to provide context for current climate change in the tropics and an understanding of drivers of variability in the past and the future at low latitude sites.

Broach K. H., 2020. Late Holocene climate variability and coastal change of the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. PhD thesis, UC Santa Cruz. Thesis (restricted access).

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