Stable carbon isotope record of holocene environmental change in the central great plains

Aaron J. Feggestad, Peter M. Jacobs, Xiaodong Miao, Joseph A. Mason

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Ratios of stable carbon isotopes preserved in soil organic matter record vegetation and climate change and are applicable to the dry environment of the central Great Plains. We sampled two loess sections and one sand sheet swale in southwest Nebraska to study a continuous record of late Pleistocene and Holocene climate change. Carbon isotope (δ13C) data are combined with previously reported and new optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) age control to establish the timing and magnitude of vegetation change. Stratigraphic units studied include the late-Pleistocene Peoria Loess and Brady Soil, Holocene Bignell Loess, and four buried soils within Bignell Loess. Isotope ratios and OSL ages indicate a shift from a C3 to C4 vegetation community during formation of the Brady Soil, reflecting climatic warming spanning the Pleistocene-Holocene transition. By the early Holocene, between 10,100 and 9100 yrs. ago, drought became a persistently recurring feature in the region as indicated by the deposition of Bignell Loess that originated from reworking of devegetated dunes and sand sheet deposits. Periods of rapid loess deposition are marked by an increase in C3 vegetation, which we interpret to indicate vegetation adapted to high rates of landscape disturbance. Conversely, C4 vegetation types dominated during periods of landscape stability and soil formation, when precipitation was sufficient for vegetation to grow on dune fields. We conclude that total annual precipitation and landscape stability are more important factors than seasonality of precipitation and atmospheric CO2 concentration in determining the chronology of C3-C4 vegetation change during the Holocene.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)170-190
Number of pages21
JournalPhysical Geography
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2004


  • Great Plains
  • Holocene
  • Loess
  • Stable carbon isotopes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Atmospheric Science
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences(all)


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