Articles | Volume 8, issue 4
Research article
23 Aug 2012
Research article |  | 23 Aug 2012

A review of the South American monsoon history as recorded in stable isotopic proxies over the past two millennia

M. Vuille, S. J. Burns, B. L. Taylor, F. W. Cruz, B. W. Bird, M. B. Abbott, L. C. Kanner, H. Cheng, and V. F. Novello

Abstract. We review the history of the South American summer monsoon (SASM) over the past ~2000 yr based on high-resolution stable isotope proxies from speleothems, ice cores and lake sediments. Our review is complemented by an analysis of an isotope-enabled atmospheric general circulation model (GCM) for the past 130 yr. Proxy records from the monsoon belt in the tropical Andes and SE Brazil show a very coherent behavior over the past 2 millennia with significant decadal to multidecadal variability superimposed on large excursions during three key periods: the Medieval Climate Anomaly (MCA), the Little Ice Age (LIA) and the current warm period (CWP). We interpret these three periods as times when the SASM's mean state was significantly weakened (MCA and CWP) and strengthened (LIA), respectively. During the LIA each of the proxy archives considered contains the most negative δ18O values recorded during the entire record length. On the other hand, the monsoon strength is currently rather weak in a 2000-yr historical perspective, rivaled only by the low intensity during the MCA. Our climatic interpretation of these archives is consistent with our isotope-based GCM analysis, which suggests that these sites are sensitive recorders of large-scale monsoon variations.

We hypothesize that these centennial-scale climate anomalies were at least partially driven by temperature changes in the Northern Hemisphere and in particular over the North Atlantic, leading to a latitudinal displacement of the ITCZ and a change in monsoon intensity (amount of rainfall upstream over the Amazon Basin). This interpretation is supported by several independent records from different proxy archives and modeling studies. Although ENSO is the main forcing for δ18O variability over tropical South America on interannual time scales, our results suggest that its influence may be significantly modulated by North Atlantic climate variability on longer time scales.

Finally, our analyses indicate that isotopic proxies, because of their ability to integrate climatic information on large spatial scales, could complement more traditional proxies such as tree rings or documentary evidence. Future climate reconstruction efforts could potentially benefit from including isotopic proxies as large-scale predictors in order to better constrain past changes in the atmospheric circulation.