Ongoing anthropogenic perturbations to the atmosphere and biosphere increase the risk of future abrupt changes in the climate system and generate concern about the ability of natural ecosystems to respond to rapid climate change. Study of past climatic events and biotic responses can inform us about potential future change. Qualitatively fast local responses of plant taxa to abrupt late glacial climate oscillations have been reported from individual records and attributed to short migration distances in areas of high topographic relief. By using quantitative time-series analyses, we show that vegetation responses to late glacial climate change around the North Atlantic were rapid and widespread and occurred in areas of differing relief. Cross-correlation analysis of 11 high-resolution lacustrine records in eastern North America and Europe indicates vegetation-response times consistently of <200 yr and often <100 yr, despite regional differences in physiography and species composition. Vegetation lags of <200 yr confirm theoretical predictions, and the apparently tight coupling between vegetation and atmosphere suggests that recent climatic trends may already have begun to affect plant population abundances and distributions.