Multidisciplinary Investigations of Alpine Ice Patches in Southwest Yukon, Canada: Paleoenvironmental and Paleobiological Investigations


  • Richard Farnell
  • P. Gregory Hare
  • Erik Blake
  • Vandy Bowyer
  • Charles Schweger
  • Sheila Greer
  • Ruth Gotthardt



Rangifer tarandus, permanent snowfields, climate change, Holocene mammals, Little Ice Age, paleoenvironment, caribou diet, pollen, genetics, parasites


Since the discovery of dung-rich alpine ice patches in southwest Yukon in 1997, continuing multidisciplinary studies have provided a unique window on the biology, climate, and hunting activity in this region over much of the Holocene. Aerial surveys have identified 72 ice patches of variable size, and 65 patches have been ground-surveyed for organic remains. Of these, 35 yielded an abundance of biological specimens, including caribou and other rare large mammal remains, mummified small mammals and birds, and artifacts spanning 8000 years. The dung provides pollen and plant macrofossils for analysis and paleoenvironmental reconstruction, as well as dietary, genetic, and parasitic information. Stratigraphically controlled sampling of dung within ice layers has yielded a geochronology placing their formation as early as 8300 to 8000 years BP. Ice patch formation was nearly continuous except for an interval between 6700 and 4700 years BP and another between 1440 and 1030, when warm or dry conditions (or both) resulted in no net ice accumulation. Resumption of ice accumulation over the following 500 years likely culminated in the Little Ice Age. The size of the ice patches during this period is made evident by a lichen-free zone that haloes each patch. More recently, interpretation of air photos from 1946 to 2001 has found a significant reduction in ice patch dimensions. Daily temperature records for Whitehorse (1942-2001) were used to calculate melting degree-day values that account for a large part of the variation in ice patch size, indicating that while considerable melting has likely occurred since the end of the Little Ice Age, the ice patches are highly sensitive to decadal changes in temperature.