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50,000 years of vegetation and climate change in the Namib Desert

Abstract : This thesis presents fossil pollen and microcharcoal data during the last 50,000 years from a north-south transect of the Namib Desert. The arid environment of the Namib precludes the development of permanent wetlands, and as a result few palaeoenvironmental records exist from the region. In this study, we employ rock hyrax middens – fossilised accumulations of the faecal pellets and urine of the Procavia capensis. Hyrax middens from three sites were selected for analysis: the southern Namib (Pella), the eastern margin of Namib Sand Sea (Zizou), and the central Namib (Spitzkoppe). The results from these terrestrial sites are the extent to which they may corroborate or conflict with findings from pollen records obtained from marine sediments of the Namibian coast.The Pella hyrax middens provide the first continuous pollen record from the southern Namib Desert since the last 50,000 years, and are used to reconstruct vegetation change and quantitative estimates of temperature and aridity. Results indicate that the last glacial period was characterised by increased water availability relative to the Holocene. Changes in temperature and potential evapotranspiration appear to have played a significant role in determining the hydrologic balance. The record can be considered in two sections: 1) the last glacial period, when low temperatures favoured the development of more mesic Nama-Karoo vegetation at the site, with periods of increased humidity concurrent with increased coastal upwelling, both responding to lower global/regional temperatures; and 2) the Holocene, high temperatures and potential evapotranspiration resulted in increased aridity and an expansion of the Desert Biome.Considered in the context of discussions of forcing mechanisms of regional climate change and environmental dynamics, the results from Pella stand in clear contrast with many inferences of terrestrial environmental change derived from regional marine records. Observations of a strong precessional signal and interpretations of increased humidity during phases of high local summer insolation in the marine records are not consistent with the data from Pella. Similarly, while high percentages of Restionaceae pollen has been observed in marine sediments during the last glacial period, they do not exceed 1% of the assemblage from Pella, indicating that no significant expansion of the Fynbos Biome has occurred during the last 50,000 years.The Zizou hyrax midden highlights vegetation changes on the eastern margin of the Namib Sand Sea since 38,000 cal BP. Results show the different vegetation compositions between the last glacial period and the Holocene. Glacial vegetation characterised with relatively high percentages of Asteraceae pollen, particularly cool climate taxa such as Stoebe and Artemisia types. Similar to the data from Pella, with the onset of Holocene warming grass pollen comes to dominate the assemblage, suggesting an expansion of the Desert Biome. We suggest that the climate during the last glacial period was more humid, and supported the development of shrubs/small trees. Arid conditions during the Holocene saw the depletion of this resource, and the development of grasslands that could exploit the rare rains that the region experiences today. In common with the Pella record, no elements of the Cape flora are found in the Zizou middens.The Spitzkoppe hyrax middens record vegetation changes in the central Namib during the last 32,000 years. The last glacial vegetation compositions composed of Olea, Artemisia¬-type, Stoebe¬-type and grasses. In the Holocene, the arboreal taxa such as Olea was replaced by others like Eculea, Dombeya, Commiphora, and Croton¬-type with relative higher percentage of grasses at early Holocene.
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Sophak Lim. 50,000 years of vegetation and climate change in the Namib Desert. Paleontology. Université Montpellier, 2017. English. ⟨NNT : 2017MONTT150⟩. ⟨tel-01726758⟩

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