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Elk Lake is near the present forest-prairie border in northwestern Minnesota, and is also located on the boundary between hard-water lakes that are typical of once-glaciated parts of the north-central United States and more saline prairie lakes of western Minnesota and the Dakotas. The sediments of the prairie lakes just west of Elk Lake are unusual in that they commonly contain high-Mg calcite and dolomite in addition to low-Mg calcite, which is the dominant carbonate mineral in most marl lakes. During the mid-Holocene dry period, prairie conditions expanded eastward into the forested regions of Minnesota. Variations in types and abundances of carbonate minerals in the Holocene sediments of Elk Lake recorded this climatic change.

Studies of primary productivity, carbonate saturation, water chemistry, and sediment-trap samples show that low-Mg calcite precipitates during the summer, triggered by algal photosynthesis. The epilimnion of Elk Lake is always oversaturated with calcite, and the degree of oversaturation increases progressively during the summer. The pH of the epilimnion increases from <8.0 after spring overturn to almost 9.0 in late summer in response to photosynthetic removal of CO2 during the summer months. The rate of calcium depletion from the epilimnion is proportional to the increase in pH and the rate of photosynthetic carbon fixation.

Today the only carbonate minerals that are accumulating in the sediments of Elk Lake are low-Mg calcite and manganese carbonate (rhodochrosite). Rhodochrosite, and probably manganese oxyhydroxide, precipitates when manganese-rich anoxic bottom waters come in contact with carbonate-rich oxic surface waters. During the arid mid-Holocene prairie period, however, low-Mg calcite, dolomite, aragonite, and rhodochrosite all accumulated in the sediments of Elk Lake. Dolomite formed in Elk Lake during this period in response to a higher Mg:Ca ratio in the water, just as it is forming today in lakes of the prairie regions of western Minnesota. The coincident occurrence of aragonite and biological indicators of high salinity suggests that the salinity of Elk Lake and the Mg:Ca ratio were higher than in any of the present prairie lakes of western Minnesota.

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