The Colorado Plateau is a distinct physiographic province in western North America, which presently straddles the transition between summer-wet and summer-dry climatic regimes to the south and northwest, respectively. In addition to climate, the diversity of environments and plant communities on the Colorado Plateau has resulted from extreme topographic diversity. Desert lowlands as low as 360 m elevation are surrounded by forested plateaus, and even higher peaks greater than 3800 m elevation. This environmental diversity provides a unique opportunity to study the history of biotic communities in an arid region of North America. Although the Colorado Plateau harbours numerous potential sites, the paleoecological record of the Plateau is poorly known. Potential deposits for analysis include packrat middens, alluvial and cave sites at lower elevations, and lake, bog and wetland sites at higher elevations. Forty-six sites have been analysed across the nearly 337,000 km2 region, of which 27 contain records that span Marine Oxygen Isotope Stage (IS) 2 data, with IS 3 information coming from only 12 sites. Most IS 2 and 3 sites are clustered along the lowland regions of the Colorado River corridor and the uplands of the Mogollon Rim area. We compiled selected data from long paleoecological records to examine patterns of vegetation and climate change across the southern Colorado Plateau for the middle and late Wisconsin. During the middle Wisconsin, mixed conifers covered middle-elevations presently dominated by ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), and juniper (Juniperus) woodland grew at elevations today covered by blackbrush (Coleogyne) and sagebrush (Artemisia) desert. During the late Wisconsin, boreal conifers, primarily Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii), replaced the mixed conifer association. Estimates of mean annual temperatures (MAT) during IS 3 were at least 3-4??C cooler than today, whereas IS 2 MAT estimates are at least 5??C colder. Our investigation of millennial-scale climatic variability within the region provided equivocal results. The packrat midden sequence could not distinguish vegetation changes that might be associated with Heinrich events in the North Atlantic. From the lake records, however, many Heinrich events were associated with generally drier intervals, often with elevated sagebrush pollen concentrations. Future paleoecological investigations should concentrate on the northern Colorado Plateau, as well as the eastern and western margins. Additional sites, along with closer-spaced sampling in regions already studied, will be important in determining the history of important climatic phenomena such as the timing of the Arizona monsoon.
Additional publication details
Middle- and late-Wisconsin paleobotanic and paleoclimatic records from the southern Colorado Plateau, USA