Quaternary environmental change in New Zealand: a review

The discovery that orbital variations are the driving force behind Quaternary climate change provides an impetus to set local and regional records of environmental change into the global context, a principle that has been strongly embraced by Quaternary scientists working in New Zealand. Their major achievements and significant current initiatives are reviewed here. The importance of the New Zealand Quaternary stems from its geographical context: a climatically sensitive, remote oceanic, southern location spanning 17 degrees of the mid-latitudes; an obliquely convergent plate boundary setting resulting in a high mountain range athwart the prevailing westerlies, active volcanism, a youthful and dynamic landscape, and mountains high enough to maintain glaciers today; and a remarkably short prehistory. The resultant records show marked environmental changes due not only to climatic oscillations but also to vigorous, active tectonism and volcanism. The Taupo Volcanic Zone, containing the world's strongest concentration of youthful rhyolitic volcanoes, has produced at least 10 000 km3 of magma in the last 2 Ma. Climatic interpretations of records from marine sediments in the New Zealand region, together with several long sequences of alternating marine and terrestrial sediments, indicate broad synchrony with Northern Hemisphere events (within limitations of dating), although there are differences in detail for shorter-term climatic events. It is not yet certain that glacial advances coincided precisely with those in the Northern Hemisphere or were of similar duration. Late Cainozoic glaciation commenced c. 2.6-2.4 Ma but the record of glacial deposits is fragmentary and poorly dated except for the most recent events. The Last (Otira) Glaciation, from c. 100-10 ka, was characterized by at least five glacial advances including during the Last Glacial Maximum from 25 to 15 ka, when snowlines fell by 600-800 m. New Zealand evidence for cooling during the Younger Dryas stade is equivocal whilst isotopic records from speleothems, and other data, indicate warmer and wetter conditions from 10-7 ka, broadly conforming with records from mid-latitude Northern Hemisphere locations. Future advances will require sampling at shorter timescales, improvements in the accuracy and precision of existing dating methods and the development of new ones, extension of palaeoecological techniques to cover the full potential of New Zealand's diverse biota, and a stronger emphasis on quantification of palaeoclimatic parameters.
Journal Article
Type of thesis
Newnham, R.M., Lowe, D.J. & Williams, P.W. (1999). Quaternary environmental change in New Zealand: a review. Progress in Physical Geography, 23(4), 567-610.
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