Paleolimnological records of regime shifts in lakes in response to climate change and anthropogenic activities

Linda Randsalu-Wendrup, Daniel J. Conley, Jacob Carstensen, Sherilyn C. Fritz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

57 Scopus citations


Regime shifts in lake ecosystems can occur in response to both abrupt and continuous climate change, and the imprints they leave in paleolimnological records allow us to investigate and better understand patterns and processes governing ecological changes on geological time scales. This synthesis investigates paleolimnological records that display apparent regime shifts and characterizes the shifts as either smooth, threshold-like or bistable. The main drivers behind the shifts are also explored: direct climate influence on lakes, climate influence mediated through the catchment, lake ontogenetic processes and/or anthropogenic forcing. This framework helps to elucidate the relationship between driver and regime shift dynamics and the type of imprint that the associated regime shifts leaves in sediment records. Our analysis of the limited sites available (22 sites) show that smooth regime shifts are characterized with forcing and response variables acting on similar time scales, whereas regime shifts that demonstrate a threshold like response or a hysteresis response occur on shorter time scales than changes in drivers. The temporal resolution of the record, a common concern in paleo records, limits identification of the timing and rate of the regime shifts. When detected, past regime shifts offer rich opportunities to understand ecosystem responses to climate and other changes and to evaluate the mean state and natural variability of lake ecosystems on time scales of decades to millennia. There are a number of remaining challenges in understanding regime shifts and ecosystem dynamics in a paleolimnological perspective including lack of an appropriate temporal resolution and ecosystem feedback mechanisms. Combining paleoecology with contemporary studies can help clarify the scale of regime shifts and to distinguish patterns in ecosystem changes from natural variability.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-14
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Paleolimnology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jun 1 2016


  • Alternative stable states
  • Climate change
  • Ecosystem dynamics
  • Regime shift
  • Threshold

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Aquatic Science
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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