Sciences in Cold and Arid Regions ›› 2021, Vol. 13 ›› Issue (4): 271-291.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1226.2021.20049.

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Progress, problems and prospects of palynology in reconstructing environmental change in inland arid areas of Asia

YongTao Zhao1,YunFa Miao1,2(),Yan Lei1,2,XianYong Cao2,3,MingXing Xiang1,2   

  1. 1.Key Laboratory of Desert and Desertification, Northwest Institute of Eco-Environment and Resources, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Lanzhou, Gansu 730000, China
    2.University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100049, China
    3.Key Laboratory of Alpine Ecology, Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, China
  • Received:2020-06-09 Accepted:2021-04-20 Online:2021-08-31 Published:2021-08-19
  • Contact: YunFa Miao
  • Supported by:
    the NSFC(41772181);the Strategic Priority Research Program of CAS(XDA20070200);Young Top Talents Project of the "Ten Thousand Youth Program" of the Organization Department of the Central Committee of the CPC;Youth Innovation Promotion Association, CAS(2014383);"Light of West China" Program, CAS;the NSF of Gansu Province(18JR3RA395)


Studying the climatic and environmental changes on different time scales in inland arid regions of Asia can greatly improve our understanding of climatic influences for the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in the context of global change. Pollen, as a remnant of seed plants, is sensitive to environmental factors including precipitation, temperature and altitude, and is a classic proxy in environmental reconstruction. In the last two decades, great progress in the application of palynology to inland areas of Asia has highlighted the role of palynology in paleoclimatic and paleoenvironmental research. The main progress is as follows. (1) On the tectonic time scale of the late Cenozoic, the palaeoclimatological sequence has been established on the basis of pollen percentage, concentration and taxon. Pollen data have revealed a continuous enhancement of drought in the inland arid region of Asia, in contrast to evidence acquired based on other proxies. (2) In the late Quaternary, an increase in herbaceous plants further supports the intensification of drought associated with global cooling. In more detail, the palynological record shows a glacial-interglacial pattern consistent with changes in global ice volume. (3) The Holocene pollen record has been established at a high resolution and across a wide range of inland areas. In general, it presents an arid grassland environment in the early Holocene, followed by the development of woody plants in the mid- to late-Holocene climate optimum. This pattern is related to moisture changes in areas dominated by the westerlies. There are also significant regional differences in the pattern and amplitude of vegetation response to the Holocene environment. (4) Modern pollen studies based on vegetation surveys, meteorological data and statistics show that topsoil palynology can better reflect regional vegetation types (e.g., grassland, meadow, desert). Drier climates yield higher pollen contents of drought-tolerant plants such as Chenopodioideae, Ephedra, and Nitriaria, while contents of Artemisia and Poaceae are greater under humid climates. Besides these achievements, problems remain in palynological research: for example, pollen extraction, identification, interpretation, and quantitative reconstruction. In the future, we encourage strengthened interdisciplinary cooperation to improve experimental methods and innovation. Firstly, we should strengthen palynological classification and improve the skill of identification; secondly, laboratory experiments are needed to better constrain pollen transport dynamics in water and air; thirdly, more rigorous mathematical principles will improve the reliability of reconstructions and deepen the knowledge of plant geography; and finally, new areas and methods in palynology should be explored, for example DNA, UV-B and isotopic analysis. It is expected that palynology will continue to develop, and we hope it will continue to play an important role in the study of past climatic and environmental changes.

Key words: Palynology, inland arid areas, Late Cenozoic, Quaternary, Holocene, modern environmental processes

Figure 1

The geographical location of inland arid regions of Asia (modified from (Wang et al., 2017)). The red cross, black dot, and green dot represent late-Cenozoic, late-Quaternary, and Holocene research sites, respectively (The detailed information of the study sites are attached in supplemental material Table 1)"

Figure 2

Significant paleorecords since the Miocene in Inner Asia: (a) Taxihe, the northern slope of the Tian Shan Range (Sun and Zhang, 2008); (b) Jingouhe, the northern slope of the Tian Shan Range (Tang et al., 2011); (c) Kuchetawu, the southern slope of the Tian Shan Range (Zhang and Sun, 2011); (d) Sikouzi, Liupan Mountains (Jiang and Ding, 2008); (e) Laojunmiao, Jiuquan Basin (Ma et al., 2005); (f) Maogou, Linxia Basin (Ma et al., 1998); (g) Tianshui Basin (Hui et al., 2011; Liu et al., 2016); (h) KC-1, xerophytic taxa percentages (Miao et al., 2011a; Cai et al., 2012; Miao et al., 2013a); (i) KC-1 & SG-3, xerophytic concentration (Cai et al., 2012; Miao et al., 2016a); (j) ASM (Asian summer monsoon) intensity reconstructed using special pollen of Fupingopollenites (Miao et al., 2016d); (k) Long-term microcharcoal concentration (Miao et al., 2016b). Xerophytic types include Amaranthaceae, Ephedra, and Nitraria"

Figure 3

Pollen records from inland areas of Asia during the late Quaternary, and the global ice volume: (a) XKL (Wu et al., 2020); (b) SG-1 (Koutsodendris et al., 2019); (c) SG-3 (Cai et al., 2012); (d) Chaona (Wu et al., 2007); (e) Zoige Basin (Zhao et al., 2020); (f) LR04 global benthic δ18O stack (Lisiecki and Raymo, 2005)"

Figure 4

The integrated effective moisture conditions in inland areas of Asia during the Holocene. (a) Westerly Central Asia (Chen et al., 2008); (b) Monsoonal Central Asia (Herzschuh, 2006); (c) Altai Mountains (Zhang and Feng, 2018); (d) Northern Xinjiang (Wang and Feng, 2013); (e) North Mongolia Plateau (Wang and Feng, 2013); and (f) variations of woody plants in eastern Tibetan Plateau (Zhao et al., 2011). The effective moisture and stacked woody pollen types were both normalized by Z-score value"

Figure 5

Locations of topsoil samples in inland arid areas of Asia (Pollen data (black cross) are from the Eastern Asia Surface Pollen Dataset (Cao et al., 2014) and our filed collection (green cross), meteorological data are from China Meteorological Data Network)"

Figure 6

The extraction procedure for pollen and spores"

Figure 7

(a) Four major stages in the development of Artemisia. Stage I, Presence (Wang, 2004; Tkach et al., 2008); II, expansion but at low levels (Wang, 2004; Webb, 2013); III, Artemisia becomes the most abundant component (Wang, 2004), IV, expansion and diversification (Wang, 2004). (b) A/C in SG-3 (Cai et al., 2012). (c) A/C in SG-1 (Koutsodendris et al., 2019)"

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