The trace-element composition of a Polish stalagmite: Implications for the use of speleothems as a record of explosive volcanism

Alice R. Paine, James U.L. Baldini, Fabian B. Wadsworth, Franziska A. Lechleitner, Robert A. Jamieson, Lisa M. Baldini, Richard J. Brown, Wolfgang Müller, Helena Hercman, Michał Gąsiorowski, Krzysztof Stefaniak, Paweł Socha, Artur Sobczyk, Marek Kasprzak

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Identification of volcanic signals preserved in paleoenvironmental records can provide key insights into the timing and consequences of explosive volcanism. Yet the eruption record is incomplete and this confounds our ability to link volcanic eruptions to their impacts on climate and environments. Studies have suggested that stalagmite records can help to address these gaps, through the identification of transient geochemical variability associated with incorporation of elements derived from erupted material. However, the utility of stalagmites for tracing volcanism is poorly constrained globally. Here, we present a high-resolution geochemical dataset for stalagmite NIED08–05 from Niedźwiedzia Cave (Poland). We do this with two primary aims: (1) to test the suitability of NIED08–05 as a record of volcanism since 3 ka BP, and (2) to ascertain whether stalagmites grown in temperate regions preserve volcanic signals with success comparable to those grown in tropical regions. We find transient enrichments of 16 trace elements and the rare-earth-elements Y, La, Nd, which coincide with the timing of some known eruption events. Using Principal Component Analysis (PCA) we find that elements atypically incorporated into calcite (e.g., Fe) co-vary. Similarly, filtering PC1 (17% of the dataset variability) for high magnitude deviations from a baseline signal yields tentative agreement between PC scores and some known large eruptions with tephra found in Poland. We use our analysis to discuss the complexities involved in associating volcanic signals with stalagmite chemistry in temperate regions far from the source of large eruptions. The transport pathway from volcanic source to stalagmite growth surfaces includes the complex Niedźwiedzia Cave hydrological system and is influenced by dense forest above the cave site. Together these factors increase the potential for attenuation of volcanic-derived chemical signals prior to reaching the stalagmite, and so make it difficult to unambiguously link trace element enrichments in NIED08–05 to volcanic eruptions. Our results provide strong evidence that in a temperate depositional environment far from active volcanoes, climate and hydrology conspire to mute the strength of volcanic geochemical signals. Therefore, this work provides important incentives for future research in this area by highlighting that stalagmites grown in a comparatively simple hydrological regime and grown in caves overlain by thin vegetation and soil cover, may preserve volcanic signatures with greater success than those grown in temperate environments.

Original languageEnglish
Article number120157
JournalChemical Geology
Publication statusPublished - 5 Jun 2021


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