Chemical and biological trends during lake evolution in recently deglaciated terrain

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As newly formed landscapes evolve, physical and biological changes occur that are collectively known as primary succession. Although succession is a fundamental concept in ecology, it is poorly understood in the context of aquatic environments. The prevailing view is that lakes become more enriched in nutrients as they age, leading to increased biological production. Here we report the opposite pattern of lake development, observed from the water chemistry of lakes that formed at various times within the past 10,000 years during glacial retreat at Glacier Bay, Alaska. The lakes have grown more dilute and acidic with time, accumulated dissolved organic carbon and undergone a transient rise in nitrogen concentration, all as a result of successional changes in surrounding vegetation and soils. Similar trends are evident from fossil diatom stratigraphy of lake sediment cores. These results demonstrate a tight hydrologic coupling between terrestrial and aquatic environments during the colonization of newly deglaciated landscapes, and provide a conceptual basis for mechanisms of primary succession in boreal lake ecosystems.

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Figure 1: A chronosequence of lakes in the Glacier Bay region of southeastern Alaska.
Figure 2: Relationship between lake age and mean values of selected water-chemistry variables in the Glacier Bay chronosequence.
Figure 3: Detrended canonical correspondence analysis of modern and fossil diatom assemblages from the chronosequence lakes.
Figure 4: Water chemistry of three Lester Island lakes and their hydrologic sources.
Figure 5: Core trajectories of three hydrologic study lakes on Lester Island.


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We thank B.A. Coffin, J.A. Janssens, M.G. Noble, G.O. Seltzer, E.B. Swain and H.E. Wright for assistance in the field; Gustavus residents H. Burd, M. Hervin, R. Howe and G. Streveler for their help; and NPS and USGS staff at Glacier Bay National Park for logistical support. This work was supported by the late D.B. Lawrence and by the National Science Foundation Ecology Program.

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Correspondence to Daniel R. Engstrom.

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