How an unusual cave in Meghalaya is unlocking secrets about climate change

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Published: March 26, 2019 8:28:54 PM

The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, found an unexpected connection between winter rainfall amounts in northeast India and climatic conditions in the Pacific Ocean.

Meghalaya, meghalaya cave, climate change, monsoon pattern, north east india, Mawmluh Cave, stalagmite, How an unusual cave in Meghalaya is unlocking secrets about climate change

An unusual cave in Meghalaya has helped unlock secrets about climate change, according to scientists who say that data from stalagmites in India could help better predict monsoon patterns, droughts and floods in the country. Researchers from Vanderbilt University in the US studied the last 50 years of growth of a stalagmite from Mawmluh Cave in Meghalaya, an area credited as the rainiest place on Earth.

The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, found an unexpected connection between winter rainfall amounts in northeast India and climatic conditions in the Pacific Ocean. Winter rainfall following weak monsoon years in India can alleviate water stress for farmers. This distant link between land and ocean records could aid in predicting dry season rainfall amounts in northeast India.
Each year, monsoon rains between June and September provide water for roughly 1.5 billion people in India.

Changes in monsoon strength and the timing of its onset or withdrawal can trigger either drought or flooding, with devastating consequences, highlighting the need for effective ways to predict and prepare for rainfall variations. Stalagmites from Mawmluh Cave and the surrounding region indicate the recurrence of intense, multiyear droughts in India over the last several thousand years.

In fact, stalagmite records from monsoon regions, including India, are vital to understanding past variability in the global climate system and the underlying reasons for this variability. Scientists typically look to those records to reflect changes in the amount of monsoon rainfall and changes in monsoonal circulation in the atmosphere. The potential influence of rainfall during winter is often overlooked.

“Counterintuitively, air and water circulation in caves can cause, and even favour, stalagmite growth in the dry season, leading to unexpected effects in paleoclimate records,” said Elli Ronay, a PhD student in Vanderbilt University. Researchers detailed their sub-seasonally resolved reconstruction of trace element compositions from the Mawmluh Cave stalagmite, providing information about local changes in hydrology.

Comparisons of cave records and nearby rainfall data show that variations in dry season rainfall rather than the monsoon rains govern variations in trace element concentrations in the stalagmite and how the amount of variation changes from year to year. This finding likely extends to stalagmite records from other caves with seasonal hydrology or ventilation, especially in monsoon regions. For Mawmluh Cave, the new study identifies links to a cycle known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and can help predict dry-season rainfall.

These results advocate for caution when interpreting stalagmite records from regions characterised by strong seasonality like the monsoon. They also suggest that potentially powerful information about annual rainfall variability in northeast India has gone unnoticed in stalagmite records thus far.

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