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The Late Quaternary Climate of Coastal California: Evidence for an Ice Age Refugium1

  • Donald Lee Johnson (a1)

The present Mediterranean climate of coastal California is unique in North America and reflects the interaction of several important synoptic controls, principally the North Pacific semipermanent anticyclone, and to a lesser extent the Aleutian low-pressure system and the cool California oceanic current. These synoptic climatic controls, key parts of the global air-sea circulation, were probably operative throughout late Quaternary time as shown by paleoecologic evidence. The thick accumulations of sediments in basins of offshore California indicate that while variable sedimentation regimes reflect changing climatic and oceanographic conditions, the Quaternary climate was probably semiarid as now, even during glacial maxima. Late Quaternary coastal dunes preserve former wind directions and show that prevailing late Quaternary winds were directionally equivalent to modern winds, which are controlled by the North Pacific anticyclone and by interactions between the North Pacific high and the interior basin low. These sand dunes contain buried, datable, carbonate-rich soils. Precipitation then, like the present rainfall regime, was not enough to leach the carbonates from the soils. Charcoal in buried dunes and soils shows that fire was environmentally important throughout the Quaternary, just as it is today. Fossil plants indicate that sclerophyllous vegetation and forest stands of conifers, adapted to a Mediterranean climate, were widely distributed during late Quaternary time. Fossil pollen in the Sierra Nevada indicates the influence of the North Pacific high. The historical precipitation record overlaps a late Holocene tree-ring record permitting extrapolation of the precipitation curve back nearly 600 years. Well-defined wet and dry trends in the precipitation pattern characterized this time span, and provide a possible analog to the earlier Holocene and Pleistocene precipitation regime. The paleoecologic record shows that the late Quaternary climate of coastal California was characterized by regimes similar to those prevailing today. The persistence of a Mediterranean climate in California during the last glaciation contrasts with dramatic climatic changes experienced in glaciated parts of North America. California thus was an Ice Age refugium for animals and cold-sensitive plants.

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This paper is an appreciably modified part of a version presented at the Proceedings of the Ninth International Congress of Anthropologists and Ethnologists, held during August-September, 1973, at Chicago, Illinois.

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