Vegetation responses to past climatic variation

I. Colin Prentice*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

116 Citations (Scopus)


Vegetation responses to climatic change can be studied retrospectively by utilizing the Quaternary fossil record. There has been controversy over the extent to which major changes in vegetation patterns at the continental scale lag behind the climatic changes that drive them, and to what extent vegetation can ever be said to be in equilibrium with climate. The equilibrium question has no single answer. The predominant mode of vegetation response to climatic change depends on the space and time frame and resolution of the data set in which the response is observed. Vegetation (as observed on particular space and time scales) can be in dynamic equilibrium with climate if its response time is sufficiently fast in relation to the rate of climatic change to which it is observed to be responding. Several processes can be involved in the response: successional, migrational, edaphic, and evolutionary. Successional response times can be deduced from forest succession models. The other processes are less well understood and different ideas exist concerning their rates. According to one hypothesis, migrational lags caused delays of thousands of years in the postglacial dynamics of forest composition. The alternative hypothesis explains these changes as dynamic equilibrium responses to changes in climatic seasonality and climatic anomaly patterns. Neither hypothesis need be universally true; gradient analysis and forest succession models are among the techniques that can be used in inferential tests of these hypotheses for particular space-time regions. Dynamic equilibrium may often be a reasonable approximation for the responses of the broadest continental-scale forest patterns to orbitally induced climatic changes. But as spatial and temporal frames of observation are diminished and resolution increased, biotic processes must eventually come to dominate. At sufficiently fine scales the main observable phenomena are successional responses to natural disturbance events. The late-Quaternary record of vegetation change allows a choice of observation scales and thus provides a continuum of possibilities for study, ranging from long-term dynamic bioclimatology to more conventional vegetation dynamics.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)131-141
Number of pages11
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Oct 1986
Externally publishedYes


  • Climatic change
  • Equilibrium
  • Long-term dynamics
  • Palynology
  • Vegetation response


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