Quantitative paleoclimatic reconstructions from late Pleistocene plant macrofossils of the Yucca Mountain region

Open-File Report 99-338

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Plant macrofossil assemblages recovered from packrat (Neotoma) middens of late Pleistocene age from the present-day Mojave Desert of southern Nevada contain plant species that today live at higher elevations and/or farther north than the midden collection sites. Previous reconstructions of late Pleistocene climates from packrat midden assemblages in this region (Spaulding, 1985) assessed the minimum climatic differences from today by estimating the present-day climatic differences between the fossil midden sites and the nearest current occurrences of key plant species recovered from the Pleistocene middens. From this approach Spaulding (1985) concluded that although late Pleistocene temperatures were considerably below those of today, only modest increases in precipitation (relative to today) were necessary for these plant species to survive in the current Mojave Desert during the late Pleistocene.

Spaulding's approach provided "state-of-the-art" results from an intensive careful examination of the best data available at the time. However, data and techniques developed since the mid-1980s suggest that there are two possible short-comings to this approach: 1) the use of lowest elevational and (frequently) most southerly occurrences of key plant species results in minimal estimates of the differences between Pleistocene and present-day climates, and 2) the instrumental climate data set available to Spaulding was limited in duration, non-standard in its method of collection, and indicated a modern climate wetter than the long-term historic mean, which resulted in relatively small apparent differences between late Pleistocene and present-day mean annual precipitation levels. In this report we use a more standard (close to the long-term mean) modern calibration period and a modern plant distribution data set that permits us to identify modern analogues for the Pleistocene vegetation. This reexamination permits a more robust reconstruction of the past climate, and results in estimates of mean annual temperature for the glacial maximum at Yucca Mountain that are 1.0° to 1.4° C warmer than those of Spaulding, and estimates of mean annual precipitation that are 60 mm or more higher than his.

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Quantitative paleoclimatic reconstructions from late Pleistocene plant macrofossils of the Yucca Mountain region
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Open-File Report
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U.S. Geological Survey
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Reston, VA
38 p.