Nutrient cycling in the palaeorecord: Fluxes from terrestrial to aquatic ecosystems

Kendra K. McLauchlan, Joseph J. Williams, Daniel R. Engstrom

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


Transfer of nutrients from terrestrial to aquatic ecosystems is a natural process with climatic, biotic, and geologic controls. Recently, increasing concern about human manipulation of global nutrient cycles has required a long-term approach to assessing the nutrient status of aquatic systems. Data available in palaeorecords can assess current trophic status, baseline conditions, and long-term processes controlling nutrient fluxes on decadal to millennial timescales. Here, we review three palaeolimnological methods used to reconstruct nutrient cycling: (1) chemical compounds preserved in lacustrine sediment, (2) aquatic biotic indicators (often using a quantitative transfer function), and (3) quantitative empirical sediment flux estimates. The millennial-scale regulation of nutrient cycling by climate and catchment geochemistry leads to a gradual trajectory of dystrophication over the Holocene in many temperate lakes. In many systems, the magnitude of recent anthropogenic changes to nutrient cycling is large compared with natural fluctuations, but this perspective could also be due to the selection of study sites that are currently experiencing eutrophication. Increased nutrient loading to aquatic systems is not always accompanied by decreased ecosystem function. The powerful temporal perspective from palaeolimnology can be complemented with modern mechanistic approaches to lead to increased understanding of the rates, patterns, and mechanisms of nutrient fluxes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1635-1643
Number of pages9
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 1 2013

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The Past Global Changes (PAGES) program of IGBP funded the conference at University of Oxford that led to this paper. Further discussions occurred at the Paleo Reconstructions of Biogeochemical Environments (PROBE) workshop funded by the National Science Foundation (DEB-1144879) that enabled this manuscript. JW was funded partially by NSF BCS-0955225.


  • anthropogenic impact
  • eutrophication
  • Holocene
  • nitrogen
  • palaeolimnology
  • phosphorus


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