Interactions of climate and fire at two sites in the northern Great Plains, USA

Charles E. Umbanhowar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


The relationship of fire and climate in explaining the origin and maintenance of the grasslands of the northern Great Plains has long been of interest. I examined the hypothesis that burning was more frequent during wet years using charcoal to reconstruct fire histories near Coldwater Lake in southcentral ND, and Rice Lake in northcentral ND and published records of ostracod Mg/Ca ratios as a proxy for climate at these same two sites. Over the past 10000 years, charcoal influx rates for Coldwater (0.04-5.68 mm2 cm-2 year-1) greatly exceeded influx rates for Rice (<0.01-1.91 mm2 cm-2 year-1). Both sites showed strong, significant periodicities of ∼1500-1800, ∼800-900 and ∼130-140 years but charcoal maxima and minima were only similar at ∼4200 cal years BP. Charcoal influx during the past 2000 years also revealed strong periodicities of between 310-400 and 140 years at both sites. Comparison of smoothed charcoal influxes and ostracod Mg/Ca ratios suggests that both proxies are responding to changes in climate. When smoothed with a 320-400-year window, increases in charcoal influx typically preceded rises in ostracod Mg/Ca ratio by ∼50-100 years, and further smoothing (140-year window) of the residuals suggested a variable relationship between Mg/Ca ratios and charcoal influx. These results do not clearly support or reject the fuel limitation hypothesis, and this lack of clear support may result from (a) climate-driven shifts in the mix of C3 and C4 grasses resulting in maximum productivity at intermediate moisture levels, (b) possibly different responses of charcoal and Mg/Ca ratios to summer vs. winter precipitation, or (c) ground-water driven lags in the response of Mg/Ca ratios to shifts in climate. Comparison of the results from this study with other studies suggests that links between fire and fuels at finer time scales (0-100 years) may be broadly constrained by longer term (∼500-2000 years) patterns of climate in the northern Great Plains.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)141-152
Number of pages12
JournalPalaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - May 31 2004

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This study was supported by NSF ROA grant ATM-9005875, a grant to the St. Olaf College Biology Department from the Howard Hughes Medical Institution, and a St. Olaf College Faculty Development Grant. Special thanks go to Sheri Fritz and Dan Engstrom for access to the cores and their continued support and encouragement and to Denise Estrella and Wade Hammer for many hours of diligent assistance. Thanks also to Emi Ito, Zi Cheng Yu, and Brian Haskell for access to data and for patiently responding to many questions, and thanks to Christoph Geiss and Phil Camill for comments on an early draft of this paper.

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


  • C/C productivity
  • charcoal
  • fire
  • grasslands
  • northern Great Plains
  • paleoenvironment

Continental Scientific Drilling Facility tags

  • 17


Dive into the research topics of 'Interactions of climate and fire at two sites in the northern Great Plains, USA'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this