Reconstructing ice-age palaeoclimates: quantifying low-CO₂ effects on plants

I. C. Prentice*, S. F. Cleator, Y. H. Huang, S. P. Harrison, I. Roulstone

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    31 Citations (Scopus)


    We present a novel method to quantify the ecophysiological effects of changes in CO₂ concentration during the reconstruction of climate changes from fossil pollen assemblages. The method does not depend on any particular vegetation model. Instead, it makes use of general equations from ecophysiology and hydrology that link moisture index (MI) to transpiration and the ratio of leaf-internal to ambient CO₂ (χ). Statistically reconstructed MI values are corrected post facto for effects of CO₂ concentration. The correction is based on the principle that e, the rate of water loss per unit carbon gain, should be inversely related to effective moisture availability as sensed by plants. The method involves solving a non-linear equation that relates e to MI, temperature and CO₂ concentration via the Fu-Zhang relation between evapotranspiration and MI, Monteith's empirical relationship between vapour pressure deficit and evapotranspiration, and recently developed theory that predicts the response of χ to vapour pressure deficit and temperature. The solution to this equation provides a correction term for MI. The numerical value of the correction depends on the reconstructed MI. It is slightly sensitive to temperature, but primarily sensitive to CO₂ concentration. Under low LGM CO₂ concentration the correction is always positive, implying that LGM climate was wetter than it would seem from vegetation composition. A statistical reconstruction of last glacial maximum (LGM, 21±1 kyr BP) palaeoclimates, based on a new compilation of modern and LGM pollen assemblage data from Australia, is used to illustrate the method in practice. Applying the correction brings pollen-reconstructed LGM moisture availability in southeastern Australia better into line with palaeohydrological estimates of LGM climate.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)166-176
    Number of pages11
    JournalGlobal and Planetary Change
    Publication statusPublished - Feb 2017


    • last glacial maximum
    • palaeoclimate reconstruction
    • moisture index
    • water-use efficiency
    • plant available moisture


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