Reconstruction of multi-century flood histories from oxbow lake sediments, Peace-Athabasca Delta, Canada

Floods caused by ice‐jams on the Peace River are considered to be important for maintaining hydro‐ecological conditions of perched basins in the Peace‐Athabasca Delta (PAD), Canada, a highly productive and internationally recognized northern boreal ecosystem. Concerns over the potential linkages between regulation of the Peace River in 1968 for hydroelectric production and low Peace River discharge between 1968 and 1971 during the filling of the hydroelectric reservoir, absence of a major ice‐jam flood event between 1975 and 1995, and low water levels in perched basins during the 1980s and early 1990s have sparked numerous environmental studies largely aimed at restoring water levels in the PAD. Lack of sufficient long‐term hydrological records, however, has limited the ability to objectively assess the importance of anthropogenic factors versus natural climatic forcing in regulating hydro‐ecological conditions of the PAD. Here, we report results of a paleolimnological study on laminated sediments from two oxbow lakes in the PAD, which are located adjacent to major flood distributaries of the Peace River. Sediment core magnetic susceptibility measurements, supported by results from several other physical and geochemical analyses as well as stratigraphic correspondence with recorded high‐water events on the Peace River, provide proxy records of flood history spanning the past 180 and 300 years in these two basins. Results indicate that inferred flood frequency has been highly variable over the past 300 years but in decline for many decades beginning as early as the late nineteenth century, well before Peace River regulation. Additionally, several multi‐decadal intervals without a major flood have occurred during the past 300 years. While climate‐related mechanisms responsible for this variability in flood frequency remain to be determined, as does quantifying the relative roles of river regulation and climate variability on hydro‐ecological conditions in the PAD since 1968, these results suggest that ecosystem management strategies for the PAD need to explicitly account for natural variations in flood recurrence intervals. Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.