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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Holocene Climates and Connections between the San Francisco Bay Estuary and its Watershed: A Review


Climate over the watershed of the San Francisco Bay Delta estuary system varies on a wide range of space and time scales, and affects downstream estuarine ecosystems. The historical climate has included mild to severe droughts and torrential rains accompanied by flooding, providing important lessons for present-day resource managers. Paleoclimate records spanning the last 10,000 years, synthesized across the Estuary, watershed and key regions beyond, provide a basis for increased understanding of how variable California’s climate can be and how it affects the Bay Delta system.

This review of paleoclimate records reveals a gradual warming and drying in California from about 10,000 years to about 4,000 years before present. During this period, the current Bay and Delta were inundated by rising sea level so that by 4,000 years ago the Bay and Delta had taken on much of their present shape and extent. Between about 4,000 and 2,000 years ago, cooler and wetter conditions prevailed in the watershed, lowering salinity in the Estuary and altering local ecosystems. Those wetter conditions gave way to increasing aridity during the past 2,000 years, a general trend punctuated by occasional prolonged and severe droughts and occasional unusually wet, cool periods. California’s climate since A.D. 1850 has been unusually stable and benign, compared to climate variations during the previous 2,000 or more years. Thus, climate variations in California’s future may be even more (perhaps much more) challenging than those of the past 100 years. To improve our understanding of these past examples of climate variability in California, and of the linkages between watershed climate and estuarine responses, greater emphases on paleoclimate records in and around the Estuary, improved temporal resolutions in several record types, and linked watershed-estuary paleo-modeling capabilities are needed.

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