The Australian region spans some 60° of latitude and 50° of longitude and displays considerable regional climate variability both today and during the Late Quaternary. A synthesis of marine and terrestrial climate records, combining findings from the Southern Ocean, temperate, tropical and arid zones, identifies a complex response of climate proxies to a background of changing boundary conditions over the last 35,000 years. Climate drivers include the seasonal timing of insolation, greenhouse gas content of the atmosphere, sea level rise and ocean and atmospheric circulation changes. Our compilation finds few climatic events that could be used to construct a climate event stratigraphy for the entire region, limiting the usefulness of this approach. Instead we have taken a spatial approach, looking to discern the patterns of change across the continent.
The data identify the clearest and most synchronous climatic response at the time of the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) (21 ± 3 ka), with unambiguous cooling recorded in the ocean, and evidence of glaciation in the highlands of tropical New Guinea, southeast Australia and Tasmania. Many terrestrial records suggest drier conditions, but with the timing of inferred snowmelt, and changes to the rainfall/runoff relationships, driving higher river discharge at the LGM. In contrast, the deglaciation is a time of considerable south-east to north-west variation across the region. Warming was underway in all regions by 17 ka. Post-glacial sea level rise and its associated regional impacts have played an important role in determining the magnitude and timing of climate response in the north-west of the continent in contrast to the southern latitudes. No evidence for cooling during the Younger Dryas chronozone is evident in the region, but the Antarctic cold reversal clearly occurs south of Australia. The Holocene period is a time of considerable climate variability associated with an intense monsoon in the tropics early in the Holocene, giving way to a weakened monsoon and an increasingly El Niño-dominated ENSO to the present. The influence of ENSO is evident throughout the southeast of Australia, but not the southwest. This climate history provides a template from which to assess the regionality of climate events across Australia and make comparisons beyond our region.