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Elk Lake in northwestern Minnesota is situated close to a climatically sensitive ecotone, the forest-prairie border, that migrated back and forth over the drainage basin of the lake during the Holocene. The entire postglacial (Holocene) sediment record in the deepest part of Elk Lake is composed of annual layers (varves) that record the seasonal pulses of many sediment components, and, most important, provide high-resolution (seasonal) time calibration of rates and timing of environmental change. These varved sediments contain many allochthonous and autochthonous components that are sensitive to changing environmental conditions in the drainage basin and the lake.

The mineral components of Elk Lake sediments consist mainly of authigenic calcium, magnesium, and manganese carbonate minerals (low-Mg calcite, high-Mg calcite, dolomite, and rhodochrosite), opaline silica (from diatoms), X-ray amorphous iron and manganese oxyhydroxides, and an iron phosphate mineral tentatively identified as rock-bridgeite [(Fe, Mn)Fe4(PO4)3(OH)5], plus minor contributions from fine-grained detrital quartz, feldspar, illite, and kaolinite. The most notable characteristic of the sediments in Elk Lake is that most of the components were formed in the lake.

Q-mode factor analysis of sediment geochemistry reduced 23 observed compositional variables, expressed as percent or parts per million of elements, to three composite variables (factor loadings) whose “concentrations” are expressed on a scale of −1.0 to 1.0. Factor 1 expresses the composition of the inorganic clastic fraction based on concentrations of Mg, Na, Al, Cr, V, Y, Sc, Ni, Sr, Co, and Cu. Factor 2 expresses the similarities in variations of Fe, Mn, P, organic carbon, and Mo. Factor 3 loadings are a synthesis of concentrations of Mn, S, Ca, La, and Ba.

Geochemical characteristics define three distinct chemical stages in the development of Elk lake: (1) a carbonate-, manganese-, iron-, sulfur-rich early-lake stage that lasted from 10,400 to 8200 varve yr; (2) a clastic- and diatom-rich mid-Holocene prairie-lake stage that lasted from 8200 to 4000 varve yr; and (3) a final iron-, manganese-, phosphate-, and organic-rich modern-lake stage that developed over the past 4000 yr. The chemical characteristics of the sediments deposited during these three lake phases can be represented by the average compositions of three groups of samples: (1) the average composition of sediments deposited over the past 2000 yr, representing the modern-lake stage; (2) the composition of a 50 varve sample centered on 5700 varve yr that represents the maximum clastic influx into the lake during the prairie period; and (3) the average composition of sediments deposited over the initial 2000 yr of the lake’s existence (10,400 to 8400 varve yr).

The amplitudes of climatic oscillations, as reflected by changes in concentration of many climatically sensitive elements, were greatest during the prairie period, pronounced cycles having periodicities of several hundred years. The extremes of these oscillations occurred within several centuries or less, which suggests that significant changes in climate may occur abruptly and rapidly. Most notably, the end of the mid-Holocene prairie period, marked by a sudden decrease in the influx of detrital clastic material, occurred within a few decades.

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