Transylvanian ice cave reveals European winter climate record

by Mary Caperton Morton
Thursday, August 10, 2017

Over the last 10,000 years, water dripping into a cave in Transylvania has frozen into one of the largest and oldest cave glaciers in the world. Today, the Scărișoara Ice Cave in central Romania preserves one of the longest ice records on Earth, a boon for climate researchers seeking to study how Europe’s climate has fluctuated during the Holocene.

“Most of the paleoclimate records from this region are plant-based, and track only the warm part of the year — the growing season,” said Candace Major, program director in the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Geosciences, which funded a new study of the cave’s climate record, in a statement. “That misses half the story. The spectacular ice cave at Scărișoara fills a crucial piece of the puzzle of past climate change in recording what happens during winter.”

The cave’s location in the Apuseni Mountains is ideal for collecting temperature and precipitation data from storm systems from both the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. By sampling the fine layers of ice laid down by rain and snowmelt, the team, led by Aurel Perșoiu of the Emil Racoviță Institute of Speleology in Romania, charted the ups and downs of winter climate over the last 10,000 years.

They found that temperatures reached a maximum during the mid-Holocene from about 7,000 to 5,000 years ago and then began decreasing afterward toward the low point of the Little Ice Age about 150 years ago. As winters became gradually cooler and wetter in northwestern Europe, a more Mediterranean climate spread toward southeastern Europe.

“Our reconstruction provides one of the very few winter climate reconstructions, filling in numerous gaps in our knowledge of past climate variability,” said author Bogdan Onac of the University of South Florida in a statement. The research offers long-term context to better understand possible future changes, Onac noted.

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