Rapid responses of the prairie-forest ecotone to early Holocene aridity in mid-continental North America

John W. Williams, Bryan Shuman, Patrick J. Bartlein

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94 Scopus citations


The prairie-forest transition in midcontinental North America is a major physiognomic boundary, and its shifts during the Holocene are a classic example of climate-driven ecotonal dynamics. Recent work suggests asymmetrical Holocene behavior, with a relatively rapid early Holocene deforestation and more gradual reforestation later in the Holocene. This paper presents a new synthesis of the Holocene history of the Great Plains prairie-forest ecotone in the north-central US and central Canada that updates prior mapping efforts and systematically assesses rates of change. Changes in percent woody cover (%WC) are inferred from fossil pollen records, using the modern analog technique and surface-sediment pollen samples cross-referenced against remotely sensed observations. For contemporary pollen samples from the Great Plains, %WC linearly correlates to percent arboreal pollen (%AP), but regression parameters vary interregionally. At present, %AP is consistently higher than %WC, because of high background levels of arboreal pollen. Holocene maps of the eastern prairie-forest ecotone agree with prior maps, showing a rapid decrease in %WC and eastward prairie advance between 10,000 and 8000 ka (1 ka = 1000 calibrated years before present), a maximum eastward position of the ecotone from 7 to 6 ka, and increased %WC and westward prairie retreat after 6 ka. Ecotone position is ambiguous in Iowa and southeastern Minnesota, due to a scarcity of modern analogs for early-Holocene samples with high Ulmus abundances and for samples from alluvial sediments. The northern prairie-forest ecotone was positioned in central Saskatchewan between 12 and 10 ka, stabilized from 10 to 6 ka despite decreases in %WC at some sites, then moved south after 6 ka. In both east and north, ecotonal movements are consistent with a dry early Holocene and increasing moisture availability after 6 ka. Sites near the ecotone consistently show an asymmetric pattern of abrupt early Holocene deforestation (< 300 years) and gradual reforestation after 6 ka. Early Holocene decreases in %WC are faster than the corresponding drops in %AP, because the analog-based %WC reconstructions correct for the high background levels of arboreal pollen types that blur temporal variations in %AP. For example, at Elk Lake, the %AP decline lasts 1000 years, whereas the %WC decline occurs between adjacent pollen samples, approximately 300 years apart. Thus, early Holocene deforestation may have been even more abrupt than previously recognized. Rapid deforestation likely was promoted both by rapid climate changes around 8.2 ka and positive fire-vegetation feedbacks. Non-linear vegetational responses to hydrological variability are consistent with 1) other paleorecords showing rapid die-offs of some eastern tree species in response to aridity and 2) observations of threshold-type ecological responses to recent climate events. The 21st-century trajectory for the Great Plains prairie-forest ecotone is uncertain, because climate models differ over the direction of regional precipitation trends, but future drying would be more likely to trigger threshold-type shifts in ecotone position.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)195-207
Number of pages13
JournalGlobal and Planetary Change
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - Apr 2009

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This synthesis was made possible by the data managers and data contributors for the Global Pollen Database. Thanks also to Dick Baker, Phil Camill, Charles Umbanhowar, and Catherine Yansa for contributing recently published pollen data. This manuscript was improved by discussions with Sara Hotchkiss and Joe Mason and comments from Tom Webb, David Nelson, Noah Diffenbaugh, and an anonymous reviewer. This paper is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0507999.

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


  • aridity
  • deforestation
  • drought
  • Great Plains
  • Holocene
  • prairie-forest ecotone


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