Holocene climate change, permafrost and cryogenic carbonate formation: insights from a recently deglaciated, high-elevation cave in the Austrian Alps


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January 2018


Cryogenically formed carbonate particles represent a rather new class of speleothems whose origin is directly linked to the presence of perennial ice in the subsurface. Recent studies concluded that dating these deposits provides important time constraints on the presence and the thickness of permafrost, e.g., during the last glacial period. More precisely, these carbonates record episodes of progressive karst water freezing. Such conditions have been associated with periods of permafrost thawing allowing the infiltration of meltwater into formerly dry, frozen caves. To shed more light on the origin of the coarsely crystalline variety of these cryogenic cave carbonates – CCCcoarse for short – we examined a high-elevation cave site in the western part of the Austrian Alps which is located in an area dominated by permafrost features and transformed from an ice cave into an essentially ice-free cave during the past decade. Two side chambers of the main gallery revealed cryogenic calcite deposits whose isotopic composition indicates that they formed in individual pools of water carved in ice which underwent very slow freezing under closed-system conditions, i.e., enclosed in ice. 230Th dating shows that most of these carbonates formed ca. 2600 yr BP. Based on comparisons with other palaeoclimate archives in the Alps this thawing episode did not occur during a climate optimum, nor did CCCcoarse form in this cave during, e.g., the Roman or the Medieval Warm Periods. Our results suggest that the occurrence of CCCcoarse, at least in mountain regions characterized by discontinuous permafrost, may be more stochastic than previously thought. Given the inherent heterogeneity of karst aquifers and the important role of localized water infiltration in modifying the thermal structure of the subsurface, we caution against attributing CCCcoarse occurrences solely to peak warming conditions, while confirming the unique significance of these deposits in providing robust age constraints on permafrost thawing episodes.

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Climate of the Past, Vol. 10, no. 4 (2018).