Lake levels and climatic change in eastern North America

Sandy P. Harrison*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    65 Citations (Scopus)


    Changes in lake levels during the last 12000 years in eastern North America show spatially coherent patterns, implying climatic control. Conditions were generally wetter than today during the late glacial, becoming more arid towards 6000 years BP when most lakes were low. Lakes rose after 6000 years BP, reaching modern levels by about 3000 years BP. These palaeohydrological changes broadly agree with simulated changes in moisture balance derived from experiments with the NCAR Community Climate Model (Kutzbach and Guetter 1986) with changing orbital parameters and lower boundary conditions (sea-surface temperature and ice extent). However, the model simulates maximum aridity at 9000 years BP. Data and model show broadly similar spatial patterns, implying that the lake-level changes can be explained by the changing boundary conditions and their effects on atmospheric circulation. At 12000 years BP most lakes were high because of increased precipitation along the jet-stream storm-track south of the ice sheet. By 9000 years BP, with the much reduced ice sheet, many lakes along the eastern seaboard and in the southeast were lower than present because of greater evaporation due to high summer insolation. The warming of the continental interior generated an enhanced monsoon low in the southwest, causing increased southerly flow which helped to maintain higher lakes in the Midwest. Dry conditions spread eastwards across the Midwest between 9000 and 6000 years BP. This effect is not shown by the model, which continues to bring monsoonal precipitation into the Midwest while simulating enhanced westerly flow and drier conditions further to the west. Such displacements of circulation features are unimportant at the continental scale, but could be significant if general circulation models are used for regionalscale predictions of changes in the moisture balance.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)157-167
    Number of pages11
    JournalClimate Dynamics
    Issue number3
    Publication statusPublished - Mar 1989


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