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Quantitative estimation of climatic parameters from vegetation data in North America by the mutual climatic range technique

August 28, 2012

The mutual climatic range (MCR) technique is perhaps the most widely used method for estimating past climatic parameters from fossil assemblages, largely because it can be conducted on a simple list of the taxa present in an assemblage. When applied to plant macrofossil data, this unweighted approach (MCRun) will frequently identify a large range for a given climatic parameter where the species in an assemblage can theoretically live together. To narrow this range, we devised a new weighted approach (MCRwt) that employs information from the modern relations between climatic parameters and plant distributions to lessen the influence of the "tails" of the distributions of the climatic data associated with the taxa in an assemblage. To assess the performance of the MCR approaches, we applied them to a set of modern climatic data and plant distributions on a 25-km grid for North America, and compared observed and estimated climatic values for each grid point. In general, MCRwt was superior to MCRun in providing smaller anomalies, less bias, and better correlations between observed and estimated values. However, by the same measures, the results of Modern Analog Technique (MAT) approaches were superior to MCRwt. Although this might be reason to favor MAT approaches, they are based on assumptions that may not be valid for paleoclimatic reconstructions, including that: 1) the absence of a taxon from a fossil sample is meaningful, 2) plant associations were largely unaffected by past changes in either levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide or in the seasonal distributions of solar radiation, and 3) plant associations of the past are adequately represented on the modern landscape. To illustrate the application of these MCR and MAT approaches to paleoclimatic reconstructions, we applied them to a Pleistocene paleobotanical assemblage from the western United States. From our examinations of the estimates of modern and past climates from vegetation assemblages, we conclude that the MCRun technique provides reliable and unbiased estimates of the ranges of possible climatic conditions that can reasonably be associated with these assemblages. The application of MCRwt and MAT approaches can further constrain these estimates and may provide a systematic way to assess uncertainty. The data sets required for MCR analyses in North America are provided in a parallel publication.

Publication Year 2012
Title Quantitative estimation of climatic parameters from vegetation data in North America by the mutual climatic range technique
DOI 10.1016/j.quascirev.2012.07.003
Authors Katherine H. Anderson, Patrick J. Bartlein, Laura E. Strickland, Richard T. Pelltier, Robert S. Thompson, Sarah L. Shafer
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Quaternary Science Reviews
Index ID 70039718
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Geology and Environmental Change Science Center