Abstract

Estimates of past precipitation are of broad interest for many areas of inquiry, including reconstructions of past environments and topography, climate modeling, and ocean circulation studies. The shapes and sizes of living leaves are highly sensitive to moisture conditions, and assemblages of fossil leaves of flowering plants have great potential as paleoprecipitation indicators. Most quantitative estimates of paleoprecipitation have been based on a multivariate data set of morphological leaf characters measured from samples of living vegetation tied to climate stations. However, when tested on extant forests, this method has consistently overestimated precipitation. We present a simpler approach that uses only the mean leaf area of a vegetation sample as a predictor variable but incorporates a broad range of annual precipitation and geographic coverage into the predictor set. The significant relationship that results, in addition to having value for paleoclimatic reconstruction, refines understanding of the long-observed positive relationship between leaf area and precipitation. Seven precipitation estimates for the Eocene of the Western United States are revised as lower than previously published but remain far wetter than the same areas today. Abundant moisture may have been an important factor in maintaining warm, frost-free conditions in the Eocene because of the major role of water vapor in retaining and transporting atmospheric heat.

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