Drought cycles and landscape responses to past aridity on prairies of the northern Great Plains, USA

J. S. Clark, E. C. Grimm, J. J. Donovan, S. C. Fritz, D. R. Engstrom, J. E. Almendinger

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142 Scopus citations


Widespread drought is among the most likely and devastating consequences of future global change. Assessment of drought impacts forecast by atmospheric models requires an understanding of natural drought variability, especially under conditions more arid than today. Using high-resolution lake-sediment records from the northern Great Plains, we show pronounced 100- to 130-yr drought cycles during the arid middle Holocene (8000 calendar yr BP). During drought phases, grass productivity declined, erosion and forbs increased, and fuel limitation reduced fire importance. Intervening humid decades saw grass production rise, with stabilization of soils and renewed fire as fuels became abundant. Although both C3 and C4 grasses declined during droughts, a lasting shift to C3 dominance occurred during a single drought ∼8200 calendar yr BP. During the more humid Late Holocene (2800 calendar yr BP), climate was less variable and without evident drought cyclicity. Consequently, drought severity during past, and possibly future, arid phases cannot be anticipated from the attenuated climate variability evident during contemporary humid phases. Our study demonstrates that agriculturally important grassland ecosystems respond sensitively to drought variability, uncertainty in which has profound implications for the future of these ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)595-601
Number of pages7
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1 2002


  • C grassland
  • Climate change
  • Diatoms
  • Fire
  • Holocene
  • Limnology
  • Pollen analysis
  • δC


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