Palaeo-dust records: A window to understanding past environments
Dust entrainment, transport over vast distances and subsequent deposition is a fundamental part of the Earth system. Yet the role and importance of dust has been underappreciated, due largely to challenges associated with recognising dust in the landscape and interpreting its depositional history. Despite these challenges, interest in dust is growing. Technical advances in remote sensing and modelling have improved understanding of dust sources and production, while advances in sedimentology, mineralogy and geochemistry (in particular) have allowed dust to be more easily distinguished within sedimentary deposits. This has facilitated the reconstruction of records of dust emissions through time. A key advance in our understanding of dust has occurred following the development of methods to geochemically provenance (fingerprint) dust to its source region. This ability has provided new information on dust transport pathways, as well as the reach and impact of dust. It has also expanded our understanding of the processes driving dust emissions over decadal to millennial timescales through linking dust deposits directly to source area conditions. Dust provenance studies have shown that dust emission, transport and deposition are highly sensitive to variability in climate. They also imply that dust emissions are not simply a function of the degree of aridity in source areas, but respond to a more complex array of conditions, including sediment availability. As well as recording natural variability, dust records are also shown to sensitively track the impact of human activity. This is reflected by both changing dust emission rates and changing dust chemistry. Specific examples of how dust responds to, and records change, are provided with our work on dust emissions from Australia, the most arid inhabited continent and the largest dust source in the Southern Hemisphere. These case studies show that Australian dust emissions reflect hydro-climate variability, with reorganisation of Australian dust source areas occurring during the mid to late Holocene. Dust emissions are shown to sensitively map the structure of the Last Glacial Maximum in Australia, demonstrating that this period was associated with enhanced, but also variable dust emissions, driven by changing sources area conditions. Finally we show how dust emissions have responded to the arrival of Europeans and the associated onset of broad-scale agriculture across the Australian continent.