Effects of holocene Alnus expansion on aquatic productivity, nitrogen cycling, and soil development in southwestern Alaska

Feng Sheng Hu, Bruce P. Finney, Linda B. Brubaker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

70 Scopus citations


Numerous pollen records provide evidence for the widespread range expansion of Alnus throughout Alaska and adjacent Canada during the middle Holocene. Because Alnus can fix atmospheric N2, this vegetational change probably had a profound effect on N availability and cycling. To assess this effect, we analyzed a sediment core from Grandfather Lake in southwestern Alaska for a suite of geochemical indicators, including elemental composition, biogenic silica (BSi) content, and carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) isotopes of organic matter. These data, in conjunction with a pollen record from the same site, are used to infer biogeochemical processes associated with the mid-Holocene Alnus expansion. The increase in Alnus pollen percentages from 10% to 70% circa 8000-7000 BP (14C years before present) suggests the rapid spread of Alnus shrub thickets on mountain slopes and riparian zones in the Grandfather Lake region. Coincident with this vegetational change, the mean value of the sediment BSi content increases from 20.4 to 106.2 mg/g, reflecting increased diatom productivity within the lake as a result of Alnus N2 fixation in the watershed soils and the associated N flux to the lake. Elevated aquatic productivity at this time is also supported by increased percentages of organic C and N, decreased C:N ratios, and decreased values of δ13C. Furthermore, the δ15N values of sediments increase substantially with the establishment of Alnus shrub thickets, suggesting enhanced N availability and accelerated N cycling within the lake and its watershed. Superimposed on a general trend of soil acidification throughout the postglacial period, soil acidity probably increased as a result of the Alnus expansion, as can be inferred from decreasing ratios of authigenic base cations to allogenic silica (Si) and increasing ratios of authigenic aluminum (Al) to allogenic Si. The ultimate cause of these mid-Holocene ecosystem changes was an increase in effective moisture in the region.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)358-368
Number of pages11
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2001


  • Alaska
  • Alnus
  • Aquatic productivity
  • Biogeochemistry
  • Elemental chemistry
  • Holcene paleoecology
  • Lake sediments
  • Long-term soil development
  • Nitrogen cycling
  • Nitrogen isotopes


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