Holocene precipitation seasonality captured by a dual hydrogen and oxygen isotope approach at Steel Lake, Minnesota

Anna K. Henderson, David M. Nelson, Feng Sheng Hu, Yongsong Huang, Bryan N. Shuman, John W. Williams

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Middle-Holocene (8 to 4ka BP) warmth and aridity are well recorded in sediment archives from midcontinental North America. However, neither the climatic driver nor the seasonal character of precipitation during this period is well understood because of the limitations of available proxy indicators. For example, an important challenge is to distinguish among the interacting effects of evaporation, temperature, or precipitation seasonality in existing δ18O records from the region. Here we combine hydrogen isotopes of palmitic acid and oxygen isotopes of carbonate to derive lake-water isotopic values during the Holocene at Steel Lake in north-central Minnesota. In combination, these data enable us to separate variations in evaporation from variations in the isotopic composition of input-waters to lake. Variations in evaporation are used as a proxy for aridity and lake-water input isotopic values are used as a proxy for the isotopic values of meteoric precipitation. Our results suggest that lake-water input isotopic values were more negative during the middle Holocene than at present. To test whether these more negative values are related to temperature or precipitation seasonality, we compare pollen-inferred temperatures and the expected isotopic value of precipitation resulting from these temperatures to the reconstructed precipitation isotopic values. Results suggest that middle Holocene warmth and aridity were associated with increased evaporation rates and decreased summer precipitation. These inferences are consistent with climate simulations that highlight the role of seasonal insolation and sea surface temperatures in driving variations in precipitation seasonality during the Holocene. Results also suggest that changes in Holocene precipitation seasonality may have influenced the expansion of the prairie-forest border in Minnesota as well as regional variations in grassland community composition. This study demonstrates the efficacy of the dual hydrogen and oxygen isotope approach for distinguishing changes in evaporation and precipitation seasonality in the paleolimnological record.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)205-214
Number of pages10
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - Dec 1 2010

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Isotopic analysis was supported by a Packard Fellowship in Science and Engineering and NSF grant ATM-0318404 (F.S.H.). Data analysis was supported by a NSF Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement grant SBE-0623442 (A.K.H) and ATM-0402308 and EAR-0602408 (B.N.S). We thank D. Rosenberry, P. Schuster and R. Parkhurst from the Shingobee Headwaters Aquatic Ecosystems Project for providing the precipitation isotope data, I. Stefanova for providing the fossil pollen data, and J. Tian for assistance with fieldwork. The manuscript was improved by comments from R. Kelly, M. Shapley, E. Ito, D. Fox, M. Wooller, J. Werne, and two anonymous reviewers. We thank H.E. Wright for stimulating and facilitating this collaborative project.

Copyright 2011 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Forest-prairie boundary
  • Hydrogen isotopes
  • Middle Holocene
  • Oxygen isotopes
  • Seasonal precipitation


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