Paleobotanical evidence of Eocene and Oligocene paleoaltitudes in midlatitude western North America

Jack A. Wolfe, Chris E. Forest, Peter Molnar

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231 Scopus citations


Comparisons of the physiognomy of leaves from modern vegetation of known climates with that of Eocene and Oligocene fossil leaf assemblages from middle latitudes of western North America indicate paleoaltitudes comparable or higher than those at present. Using canonical correspondence analysis, a multivariate statisticsl approach that includes nonlinear relationships between characters and environmental parameters, we relate leaf physiognomy of fossil samples to modern vegetation of known environmental parameters, including moist enthalpy of the atmosphere, a thermodynamically conserved quantity of the atmosphere that varies with altitude. By estimating enthalpy values for both lowland leaf assemblages and coeval interior leaf assemblages, altitudes for the interior assemblages can be estimated to ±890 m. In northeastern Washington and southern British Columbia, the high Eocene altitudes indicate subsidence, or collapse, of an area undergoing crustal extension and may reflect an immediately preceding period of uplift that triggered the extension. Similarly, other areas that have undergone Cenozoic crustal extension appear to have been at least as high as they are at present. Three sites from the Rocky Mountains also indicate elevations at least as high as at present, and therefore suggest subsidence, either resulting from cooling of a hot upper mantle or erosion and isostatic compensation of surrounding terrain. High altitudes during Eocene and Oligocene time in western North America appear to have been normal, even in areas such as the Green River basin, and therefore cast doubt on the commonly inferred late Cenozoic uplift of that region.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)664-678
Number of pages15
JournalBulletin of the Geological Society of America
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 1998

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geology


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