Journal of Paleolimnology

, Volume 47, Issue 3, pp 513–530 | Cite as

A new water-level history for Lake Ontario basin: evidence for a climate-driven early Holocene lowstand

  • T. W. Anderson
  • C. F. M. Lewis
Original paper


Piston cores from deep-water bottom deposits in Lake Ontario contain shallow-water sediments such as, shell-rich sand and silt, marl, gyttja, and formerly exposed shore deposits including woody detritus, peat, sand and gravel, that are indicative of past periods of significantly lower water levels. These and other water-level indicators such as changes in rates of sedimentation, mollusc shells, pollen, and plant macrofossils were integrated to derive a new water-level history for Lake Ontario basin using an empirical model of isostatic adjustment for the Great Lakes basin to restore dated remnants of former lake levels to their original elevations. The earliest dated low-level feature is the Grimsby-Oakville bar which was constructed in the western end of the lake during a near stillstand at 11–10.4 (12.9–12.3 cal) ka BP when Early Lake Ontario was confluent with the Champlain Sea. Rising Lake Ontario basin outlet sills, a consequence of differential isostatic rebound, severed the connection with Champlain Sea and, in combination with the switch of inflowing Lake Algonquin drainage northward to Ottawa River valley via outlets near North Bay and an early Holocene dry climate with enhanced evaporation, forced Lake Ontario into a basin-wide lowstand between 10.4 and 7.5 (12.3 and 8.3 cal) ka BP. During this time, Lake Ontario operated as a closed basin with no outlets, and sites such as Hamilton Harbour, Bay of Quinte, Henderson Harbor, and a site near Amherst Island existed as small isolated basins above the main lake characterized by shallow-water, lagoonal or marsh deposits and fossils indicative of littoral habitats and newly exposed mudflats. Rising lake levels resulting from increased atmospheric water supply brought Lake Ontario above the outlet sills into an open, overflowing state ending the closed phase of the lake by ~7.5 (8.3 cal) ka BP. Lake levels continued to rise steadily above the Thousand Islands sill through mid-to-late Holocene time culminating at the level of modern Lake Ontario. The early and middle Holocene lake-level changes are supported by temperature and precipitation trends derived from pollen-climate transfer functions applied to Roblin Lake on the north side of Lake Ontario.


Lake Ontario Laurentian Great Lakes Holocene Hydrologic closed-basin Sediment stratigraphy Pollen stratigraphy 



We are grateful to G. Mackie (University of Guelph) and M. Smith (formerly of the National Museum Natural Sciences, Ottawa) for the mollusc identifications and to R. J. Mott (Geological Survey of Canada, Ottawa) for wood identifications. R.A. Young (State University of New York at Geneseo) kindly provided borehole logs and radiocarbon dates for bar sediments at the mouth of Irondequoit Bay, New York. Early radiocarbon determinations were provided by the former Radiocarbon Laboratory, Geological Survey of Canada, Ottawa. We thank Geological Survey of Canada Atlantic (GSCA) for support for later AMS radiocarbon dating, and J. H. McAndrews (University of Toronto) for deriving temperature and precipitation profiles using pollen transfer functions for Roblin Lake, Ontario and providing unpublished data from Fish Lake, Ontario. Grain size, carbon contents, and calcite and dolomite analyses were carried out in the Sedimentology Laboratory, Geological Survey of Canada, Ottawa. Dr. J-M. Gagnon, Canadian Museum of Nature, identified molluscs, provided habitat information, and contributed shell specimens for determination of the hardwater effect in Lake Ontario. We thank P. O’Regan (GSCA) for assistance with illustrations. We are grateful to reviewers for the Geological Survey of Canada and for the journal for their comments which have helped to improve the paper.

Supplementary material

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Copyright information

© Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Geological Survey of Canada, Natural Resources CanadaOttawaCanada
  2. 2.Geological Survey of Canada Atlantic, Natural Resources Canada, Bedford Institute of OceanographyDartmouthCanada
  3. 3.Graduate School of Oceanography, University of Rhode IslandNarragansettUSA

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