Stalagmites may predict droughts, floods

Washington: 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 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

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.

“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.

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.

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