US Geological Survey


Date of this Version



Published in Quaternary Science Reviews 21 (2002) 1763–1775.


Elk Lake, in northwestern Minnesota, contains numerous proxy records of climatic and environmental change contained in varved sediments with annual resolution for the last 10,000 years. These proxies show that about 8200 calendar years ago (8.2 cal. ka; 7300 radiocarbon years) Elk Lake went froma well-stratified lake that was wind-protected in a boreal forest to a well-mixed lake in open prairie savanna receiving northwesterly wind-blown dust, probably from the dry floor of Lake Agassiz. This change in climate marks the initiation of the widely recognized mid-Holocene “altithermal” in central North America. The coincidence of this change with the so-called 8.2 cal. ka cold event, recognized in ice-core and other records from the circum-North Atlantic, and thought by some to be caused by catastrophic discharge of freshwater from proglacial lakes Agassiz and Ojibway, suggests that the two ‘‘events’’ might be related. Our interpretation of the Elk Lake proxy records, and of other records from less accurately dated sites, suggests that change in climate over North America was the result of a fundamental change in atmospheric circulation in response to marked changes in the relative proportions of land, water, and, especially, glacial ice in North America during the early Holocene. This change in circulation probably post-dates the final drainage of proglacial lakes along the southern margin of the Laurentide ice sheet, and may have produced a minor perturbation in climate over Greenland that resulted in a brief cold pulse detected in ice cores.