Articles | Volume 13, issue 9
Research article
28 Sep 2017
Research article |  | 28 Sep 2017

Examining bias in pollen-based quantitative climate reconstructions induced by human impact on vegetation in China

Wei Ding, Qinghai Xu, and Pavel E. Tarasov

Abstract. Human impact is a well-known confounder in pollen-based quantitative climate reconstructions as most terrestrial ecosystems have been artificially affected to varying degrees. In this paper, we use a human-induced pollen dataset (H-set) and a corresponding natural pollen dataset (N-set) to establish pollen–climate calibration sets for temperate eastern China (TEC). The two calibration sets, taking a weighted averaging partial least squares (WA-PLS) approach, are used to reconstruct past climate variables from a fossil record, which is located at the margin of the East Asian summer monsoon in north-central China and covers the late glacial Holocene from 14.7 ka BP (thousands of years before AD 1950). Ordination results suggest that mean annual precipitation (Pann) is the main explanatory variable of both pollen composition and percentage distributions in both datasets. The Pann reconstructions, based on the two calibration sets, demonstrate consistently similar patterns and general trends, suggesting a relatively strong climate impact on the regional vegetation and pollen spectra. However, our results also indicate that the human impact may obscure climate signals derived from fossil pollen assemblages. In a test with modern climate and pollen data, the Pann influence on pollen distribution decreases in the H-set, while the human influence index (HII) rises. Moreover, the relatively strong human impact reduces woody pollen taxa abundances, particularly in the subhumid forested areas. Consequently, this shifts their model-inferred Pann optima to the arid end of the gradient compared to Pann tolerances in the natural dataset and further produces distinct deviations when the total tree pollen percentages are high (i.e. about 40 % for the Gonghai area) in the fossil sequence. In summary, the calibration set with human impact used in our experiment can produce a reliable general pattern of past climate, but the human impact on vegetation affects the pollen–climate relationship and biases the pollen-based climate reconstruction. The extent of human-induced bias may be rather small for the entire late glacial and early Holocene interval when we use a reference set called natural. Nevertheless, this potential bias should be kept in mind when conducting quantitative reconstructions, especially for the recent 2 or 3 millennia.

Short summary
Pollen-based past climate reconstruction for regions with long-term human occupation is always controversial. We examined the bias induced by the human impact on vegetation in a climate reconstruction for temperate eastern China by comparing the deviations in the reconstructed results for a fossil record based on two pollen–climate calibration sets. Climatic signals in pollen assemblages are indeed obscured by human impact; however, the extent of the bias could be assessed.