A 31,000 year record of paleoenvironmental and lake-level change from Harding Lake, Alaska, USA

Matthew S. Finkenbinder, Mark B. Abbott, Mary E. Edwards, Catherine T. Langdon, Byron A. Steinman, Bruce P. Finney

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36 Scopus citations


Physical and geochemical proxy analyses of sediment cores from Harding Lake in central Alaska are used to reconstruct paleoenvironmental change and millennial scale fluctuations in lake level for the last ~31,000 years. We analyzed a composite 422cm core from the lake depocenter (42.1m water depth) and identified 4 distinct lithologic units based on variability in dry bulk density, organic matter, biogenic silica, carbon to nitrogen mass ratios (C/N), organic matter carbon isotopes (δ13C), pollen, and elemental abundances via scanning X-ray fluorescence, with age control provided by 16 Accelerator Mass Spectrometry radiocarbon dates and 210Pb dating. In addition, we analyzed a transect of cores from 7.1m, 10.75m, 15.91m, and 38.05m water depths to identify lake level fluctuations and to characterize sediment compositional changes as a function of water depth. Organic matter content and magnetic susceptibility values in surface sediments from all transect cores show a strong correlation with water depth. Interpretation of four lithologic units with well-dated contacts produced a record of water-depth variations that is consistent with independent climate records from eastern Beringia. Basal coarse-grained sediments (quartz pebble diamicton) were deposited prior to 30,700 calendar years before present (yr BP), possibly from fluvial reworking or deflation during a period of severe aridity. Unit 1 sediments were deposited between 30,700 and 15,700yr BP and are characterized by a low organic matter content, a high magnetic susceptibility, and low biogenic silica concentrations resulting from very low lake levels, low terrestrial and in-lake productivity and a high flux of clastic sediment. An abrupt increase in organic matter and biogenic silica concentration marks the transition into Unit 2 sediments, which were deposited between 15,700 and 9,400yr BP when lake levels were higher and variable (relative to Unit 1). The transition to full interglacial conditions at 9,400yr BP marks the beginning of Unit 3. Here an abrupt increase in the sedimentation rate, organic matter and biogenic silica concentration occurs (along with a corresponding decrease to low magnetic susceptibility). These high values persist until 8,700yr BP, signifying a rapid rise to higher lake levels (in comparison to Units 1 and 2). Unit 4 sediments were deposited between 8,700yr BP to 2010 AD and generally contain high concentrations of organic matter and biogenic silica with low magnetic susceptibility, suggesting that lake levels were relatively high and stable during the middle to late Holocene.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)98-113
Number of pages16
JournalQuaternary Science Reviews
StatePublished - Mar 1 2014

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Funding for this project was provided by the National Science Foundation ( ARC-0908200 , ARC-0909310 ) and the Henry Leighton Memorial Graduate Scholarship through the University of Pittsburgh Department of Geology and Planetary Science . We thank Adele Virgin, Christopher Purcell, Jason Addison, Bernie Baecker and Dave Pompeani for assistance in the field; Nancy Bigelow for use of coring equipment during the July 2012 field season; John Southon, Guaciarra dos Santos and prep-lab personnel (Hector Martinez, Chanda Bertrand, and Shari Bush) at the Keck Carbon Cycle Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory at the University of California, Irvine for assistance in preparing graphite targets and isotope measurement for radiocarbon analysis; and Aubrey Hillman and Kaitlyn Clark for help with the research. This manuscript was greatly improved by the helpful suggestions from two anonymous reviewers.


  • Alaska
  • Climate change
  • Lake sediment geochemistry
  • Lake-level
  • Late-Quaternary
  • Paleolimnology


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