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Paleo-environmental reconstruction of a Late Quaternary organic-rich section preserved near Ohakune, central North Island, New Zealand

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posted on 2021-11-14, 07:26 authored by Juchnowicz, Hannah

A 6m thick section of organic-rich sediment, exposed at Karioi, near Ohakune, central North Island (672m above sea level), presents an opportunity to form a detailed palynological record of Late Quaternary vegetation and climate change. The organic-rich sequence at Karioi lies beneath a 3.29m thick cover-bed sequence that contains towards its base the c. 25.4 ka cal BP Kawakawa/Oruanui Tephra, a key chronostratigraphic marker for the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) throughout New Zealand. A previous palynological investigation of the underlying organic sediments suggested they extended back from the LGM (Marine isotope stage 2) to the previous interglacial (MIS 5). Such apparently continuous terrestrial records spanning this age range and located at this altitude are rare. A key feature of the Karioi organic sequence is the occurrence of numerous millimetre- to decimetre- thick tephra, derived from a variety of North Island eruptive sources. The possibility that volcanic processes have influenced vegetation change makes climate inferences at this important site potentially problematic. In this new study of the Karioi section, centimetre-scale palynological and diatom sampling conducted above and below three selected tephra (here named ‘Big Lower Lapilli’, ’Unknown’ tephra, and ‘Little’ tephra) at Karioi, were used to assess the influence of these volcanic events on the vegetation and local hydrology. Loss-on-ignition and magnetic susceptibility were used, alongside pollen and diatom analysis, to infer changes in local hydrology and depositional processes in relation to environmental stability. Together, these analyses helped determine the volcanic impacts on vegetation assemblages gained from the pollen record at the site and allowed these to be disassociated from larger scale climate influences of interest. The results of this study indicate a discernible volcanic impact on vegetation and hydrology following just one of the three volcanic events targeted in the record. High-resolution (0.5cm) pollen analysis above and below the largest of the three tephra layers, the 22cm thick ‘Big Lower Lapilli’ showed a notable change in vegetation assemblage immediately following tephra deposition. The most significant of these changes was the marked increase in herbs. This was an unexpected result thought to be due to the proximity of the site to sub-alpine and alpine herbaceous communities, which in turn were closer to the source of volcanism than other vegetation communities depicted in the pollen record. The changes to the pollen spectra are estimated to have taken 300 years to return to pre-eruption assemblages. Magnetic susceptibility and loss-on-ignition results further add to this research by indicating the comparative stability of the depositional environment around the time of deposition of the ‘Big Lower Lapilli’. Statistical analysis further identified a change in vegetation communities associated with tephra deposition, coinciding with an increase in diatom species abundance, which signified an increase in water volume and depth at the site. This was most clearly seen by the marked increase in Aulacoseira ambigua, which is almost exclusively found in water bodies of at least 2 metres depth. These results have major implications for pollen-based climate reconstructions from sequences with interbedded tephra layers. First, such investigations should include fine resolution analyses around prominent tephra layers to test for possible volcanic disturbance that may be a confounding factor in any paleoclimatic reconstructions applied. In this study, for example, vegetation assemblages may have taken up to 300 years to return to pre-eruption levels, but this recovery phase was well within the c. 1000 year inter-sample period of the original coarse (10cm) resolution record. Without the fine resolution study conducted here, the decline of shrubs and increase in grasses, with no obvious changes to trees following deposition of the ‘Big Lower Lapilli’ could have been inferred as a short-term cooling interval. Beyond this restricted zone of volcanic disturbance, greater confidence in the paleoclimatic interpretation of the Karioi pollen record has been achieved as a result of this finer resolution ‘test’ for volcanic disturbance. Second, the volcanic disturbance indicated following the ‘big lower lapilli’ has shed light on pollen taphonomic sources and pathways at this site and in turn, on spatial patterns of vegetation communities. In this case, the increase in tree pollen relative to non-arboreal pollen is interpreted as originating from more distant forest stands that have been comparatively less affected by the deposition of tephra than locally growing vegetation.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Science

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970104 Expanding Knowledge in the Earth Sciences

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences


Newnham, Rewi; Alloway, Brent