North American nonmarine climates and vegetation during the Late Cretaceous

Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology
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Analyses of physiognomy of Late Cretaceous leaf assemblages and of structural adaptations of Late Cretaceous dicotyledonous woods indicate that megathermal vegetation was an open-canopy, broad-leaved evergreen woodland that existed under low to moderate amounts of rainfall evenly distributed through the year, with a moderate increase at about 40-45??N. Many dicotyledons were probably large, massive trees, but the tallest trees were evergreen conifers. Megathermal climate extended up to paleolatitude 45-50??N. Mesothermal vegetation was at least partially an open, broad-leaved evergreen woodland (perhaps a mosaic of woodland and forest), but the evapotranspirational stress was less than in megathermal climate. Some dicotyledons were large trees, but most were shrubs or small trees; evergreen conifers were the major tree element. Some mild seasonality is evidenced in mesothermal woods; precipitational levels probably varied markedly from year to year. Northward of approximately paleolatitude 65??N, evergreen vegetation was replaced by predominantly deciduous vegetation. This replacement is presumably related primarily to seasonality of light. The southern part of the deciduous vegetation probably existed under mesothermal climate. Comparisons to leaf and wood assemblages from other continents are generally consistent with the vegetational-climatic patterns suggested from North American data. Limited data from equatorial regions suggest low rainfall. Late Cretaceous climates, except probably those of the Cenomanian, had only moderate change through time. Temperatures generally appear to have warmed into the Santonian, cooled slightly into the Campanian and more markedly into the Maastrichtian, and then returned to Santonian values by the late Maastrichtian. The early Eocene was probably warmer than any period of the Late Cretaceous. Latitudinal temperature gradients were lower than at present. For the Campanian and Maastrichtian, a gradient of about 0.3??C/1?? latitude is inferred. Equability was high: a mean annual range of temperature of about 8??C is inferred for paleolatitude 51-56??N during the Campanian. Most Late Cretaceous plants evolved in a climate characterized by absence of freezing and low to moderate amounts of precipitation. A brief, low-temperature excursion and a major, long-lasting increase in precipitation occurred at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary. In megathermal climates, these events selected for plants that could exist in rainforest environments. In mesothermal climates, deciduousness and contamitant structural adaptations were selected. The events at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary had a major and long-lasting impact on the evolution of land plants and their ecosystems. Low precipitation at low to middle Late Cretaceous latitudes is suggested to be the result of high levels of atmospheric CO2, which, in turn, are probably related to inability of warm, saline oceans to store large amounts of carbon. Conditions appear to have rapidly changed at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary, when oceanic circulation and stratification may have been fundamentally altered. After the boundary, the oceans were apparently able to store much greater amounts of carbon, and the oceans withdrew large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. In turn, more precipitation fell at low to middle latitudes; the resulting high-biomass vegetation formed a second major carbon reservoir to keep atmospheric CO2 low relative to the Late Cretaceous. Changes in oceanic and atmospheric circulation probably resulted from some factor external to the ocean-atmosphere system. ?? 1987.

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title North American nonmarine climates and vegetation during the Late Cretaceous
Series title Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology
Volume 61
Issue C
Year Published 1987
Language English
Larger Work Type Article
Larger Work Subtype Journal Article
Larger Work Title Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology
First page 33
Last page 77