A new compilation of pollen and packrat midden data from western North America provides a refined reconstruction of the composition and distribution of biomes in western North America for today and for 6000 and 18,000 radiocarbon years before present (14C yr bp).
Modern biomes in western North America are adequately portrayed by pollen assemblages from lakes and bogs. Forest biomes in western North America share many taxa in their pollen spectra and it can be difficult to discriminate among these biomes. Plant macrofossils from packrat middens provide reliable identification of modern biomes from arid and semiarid regions, and this may also be true in similar environments in other parts of the world. However, a weighting factor for trees and shrubs must be used to reliably reconstruct modern biomes from plant macrofossils.
A new biome, open conifer woodland, which includes eurythermic conifers and steppe plants, was defined to categorize much of the current and past vegetation of the semiarid interior of western North America.
At 6000 14C yr bp, the forest biomes of the coastal Pacific North-west and the desert biomes of the South-west were in near-modern positions. Biomes in the interior Pacific North-west differed from those of today in that taiga prevailed in modern cool/cold mixed forests. Steppe was present in areas occupied today by open conifer woodland in the northern Great Basin, while in the central and southern Rocky Mountains forests grew where steppe grows today. During the mid-Holocene, cool conifer forests were expanded in the Rocky Mountains (relative to today) but contracted in the Sierra Nevada. These differences from the forests of today imply different climatic histories in these two regions between 6000 14C yr bp and today.
At 18,000 14C yr bp, deserts were absent from the South-west and the coverage of open conifer woodland was greatly expanded relative to today. Steppe and tundra were present in much of the region now covered by forests in the Pacific North-west.