Clim. Past Discuss., 9, 435-465, 2013
© Author(s) 2013. This work is distributed
under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.
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This discussion paper has been under review for the journal Climate of the Past (CP). Please refer to the corresponding final paper in CP.
Assessing the impact of late Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions on global vegetation and climate
M.-O. Brault1,*, L. A. Mysak1, H. D. Matthews2, and C. T. Simmons1
1Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, McGill University, Montreal, Canada
2Department of Geography, Planning and Environment, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada
*now at: Department of Geography, McGill University, Montreal, Canada

Abstract. The end of the Pleistocene marked a turning point for the Earth system as climate gradually emerged from millennia of severe glaciation in the Northern Hemisphere. It is widely acknowledged that the deglacial climate change coincided with an unprecedented decline in many species of large terrestrial mammals, including the near-total eradication of the woolly mammoth. Due to an herbivorous diet that presumably involved large-scale tree grazing, the mammoth expansion would have accelerated the expansion of dwarf deciduous trees in Siberia and Beringia, thus contributing to the changing climate of the period. In this study, we use the University of Victoria Earth System Climate Model (UVic ESCM) to simulate the possible effects of megafaunal extinctions on Pleistocene climate change. We have explored various hypothetical scenarios of forest expansion in the Northern Continents, quantifying the regional and global biogeophysical effects in terms of changes in surface albedo and air temperature. In particular, we focus our attention on a Maximum Impact Scenario (MIS) which simulates the greatest possible post-extinction reforestation in the model. More realistic experiments include sensitivity tests based on the timing of extinction, the fraction of trees grazed by mammoths, and the size of mammoth habitats. We also show the results of a simulation with free (non-prescribed) atmospheric CO2. For the MIS, we obtained a surface albedo increase of 0.006, which resulted in a global warming of 0.175 °C. Less extreme scenarios produced smaller global mean temperature changes, though local warming in some locations exceeded 0.3 °C even in the more realistic extinction scenarios. In the free CO2 simulation, the biogeophysical-induced warming was amplified by a biogeochemical effect whereby the replacement of high-latitude tundra with shrub forest led to a release of soil carbon to the atmosphere and a small atmospheric CO2 increase. Overall, our results suggest the potential for a small, though non-trivial, effect of megafaunal extinctions on Pleistocene climate change.

Citation: Brault, M.-O., Mysak, L. A., Matthews, H. D., and Simmons, C. T.: Assessing the impact of late Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions on global vegetation and climate, Clim. Past Discuss., 9, 435-465, doi:10.5194/cpd-9-435-2013, 2013.
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