The Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum: Plants as Paleothermometers, Rain Gauges, and Monitors

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Book Chapter

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Nature through time


We travel back in time through this chapter and take a field trip to western North America during the Paleocene– Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), some 56 million years ago. Here, plant-and-animal fossils were discovered in the warmest interval of the last 500 million years, a condition that lasted only 200,000 years. We provide a brief review of what may have caused a massive influx of atmospheric carbon detected during the PETM. We contrast the PETM to similar ongoing thermal events that began during the Industrial Revolution and persist today. We discuss the tools that paleobotanists have devised to interpret climate from fossil leaf, pollen, and wood records and present a brief overview of floral changes that occurred in western North America before, during, and right after this thermal maximum. Lastly, we explore how fossil data can be incorporated with ecological and systematic information into biogeographical models to predict how Cenozoic plants respond to climate change.


Biological and Environmental Sciences

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