Inner Coastal Plain Deserts of the Ice Ages

A new study reinforces evidence, indicating some regions of southeastern North America were harsh environments during climatic phases when the ice sheets that covered Canada were expanding.  The scientists who wrote this paper took cores of sediment from 2 Carolina Bays (Jones and Singletary Lakes) located in Bladen County, North Carolina. Carolina Bays are elliptical depressions found on the Atlantic Coastal Plain that were formed during Ice Ages.  They were created by a combination of peat fires, and wind and water erosion.  The peat fires lowered the elevation, wind blew out the dried unconsolidated sediment, and wind-driven water shaped them into elliptical formations.  Jones and Singletary Lakes were also studied in the early 1950s in 1 of the first paleoecological studies of late Pleistocene environments of the south.  The new study analyzed pollen composition, charcoal abundance, and biomass; and the authors compared their results to the earlier study.  The data was dated using radio-carbon dating.

Image result for Bladen County, North Carolina

Location of Bladen County, North Carolina.  This is the site of the study areas discussed in this blog entry.

Image result for Singletary Lake, north Carolina

Photo of Singletary Lake, a Carolina Bay.  Scientists took a sediment core at the bottom of this lake and analyzed pollen, charcoal, and biomass abundance over the past 50,000 years.

Between ~60,000 years BP-~30,000 years BP climate fluctuated drastically between warm wet interstadials and cold arid stadials.  The glaciers covering Canada advanced then retreated then advanced again in fits and starts.  During glacial expansion more of earth’s atmospheric moisture became locked in glacial ice, causing prolonged droughts, but this moisture was released when glaciers were in a meltwater phase.  Oak and grass pollen increased during meltwater phases, and so did charcoal abundance.  An increase in vegetation meant there was more biomass to ignite and burn during electrical storms.  Oak and grass were fairly abundant from ~43,000 years BP-~32,000 years BP.  The environment mostly consisted of woodland and grassland during interstadials,  but about 30,000 years BP the situation deteriorated.

Ice sheets maintained a steady expansion from ~30,000 years BP-~21,000 years BP.  The initial drought that struck the region during this phase killed vegetation and caused a temporary spike of charcoal because the dead biomass was so flammable.  But after this initial spike, fire was rare to non-existent here.  Sand dunes rolled across the landscape because much of the region was sparsely vegetated.  I believe scrub oak thickets with thorny plants adapted to arid climates covered much of the landscape, but this type of environment doesn’t produce much pollen.  Thus, the amount of vegetation on the landscape then is understated in the pollen record.  For this reason I don’t believe the landscape was as bare as the authors of this study concluded when they wrote it was a “windswept sandy desert with riparian communities of pine and oak.”  Nevertheless, it was an harsh environment of thorny thickets interspersed with areas of bare soil and long distances between water and wetland environments where some trees and grass still grew.  Some tough species of mammals that could survive in this type of environment included horse, flat-headed peccary, helmeted musk-ox, and hog-nosed skunk.  Bison evolved into a smaller species more capable of living in a drier natural community. Overall, wildlife populations probably declined during this climatic phase.

About 21,000 years ago, the ice sheets began retreating and precipitation increased.  Oak and grass gradually increased in abundance, and eventually mesic species such as cypress, basswood, hemlock, and beech invaded the resulting wetter habitats.  ~12,000 years ago, man colonized the region and overhunted megafauna into extinction.  Human-set fires combined with an increase in biomass not being consumed by megaherbivores caused a great increase in fire frequency.

I’m skeptical of 1 claim made by this paper.  The authors estimated the average annual temperature and precipitation levels based on plant composition assumed from the pollen record.  During the Last Glacial Maximum they estimated the average January temperature at these sites was 20 degrees F, while the average July temperature was 68 degrees F.  However, they use 2 dubious assumptions.  They believe the pollen grains from northern species of pine can be distinguished from those of shortleaf pine, a southern species.  This is a doubtful assumption that I will examine more thoroughly in my next blog entry.  Moreover, the spruce pollen probably originated from an extinct species of temperate tree known as Critchfield’s spruce.  I don’t think they can estimate average annual temperatures based on pollen composition, unless the exact species are known with more certainty.

The outer coastal plain and the continental shelf, which was above sea level from ~80,000 years BP-~7,000 years BP, likely hosted richer environments than the inner coastal plain during stadials.  Sea breezes and weather fronts spawned in the Atlantic Ocean brought more moisture to the coast, allowing this region to maintain a mosaic of woodland, grassland, and wetland; while the inner coastal plain suffered greater aridity.  These fronts usually dissipated before they reached the inner coastal plain.  The coastal region likely served as a refuge for plants and animals that later re-colonized the inner coastal plain when climatic conditions improved.


Spencer, Jessica; et. al.

“Late Quaternary Records of Vegetation and Fire in Southeastern North Carolina from Jones Lake and Singletary Lake”

Quaternary Science Review 174 October 2017

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