Pacific Ocean Climate Variability: Terrestrial Records of North American Precipitation Patterns

Sediment cores from the Western US, Mexico, and Central America provide information about terrestrial ecosystem response to climate variability in the past.
Sediment cores from the Western US, Mexico, and Central America provide information about terrestrial ecosystem response to climate variability in the past.

This project builds on climate variability studies completed by Pacific Ocean Climate Variability Project, which show that changing North Pacific sea surface temperatures (SSTs) have exerted a strong control on the patterns and amounts of precipitation in the western United States over the past 15,000 years. Results of those studies also demonstrate that a combination of warmer than present SSTs off southern California and cooler than present SSTs in the Gulf of California occurred between ~10,500 and 7500 years ago were created a much broader (more east-west) pattern of monsoon precipitation in the southwestern US. Project proxy studies provide evidence that both recent and widespread drought in the western US during the past 1,200 years were due to La Niña-like conditions (cooler SSTs) in the Pacific.

A major aim of this project's terrestrial-based studies is to develop regional records of precipitation (and drought) during the Holocene (past ~11,500 years). These can be compared with North American records being compiled by other Climate R&D projects. Development of decadal-scale records of the past 2,000 years is a major goal of this project, and sites are being selected from environments and geographic regions known to be sensitive to changing ENSO/PDO (El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO)/Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO)) conditions. Syntheses of these regional studies should help climate modelers determine how modern precipitation patterns in the United States have responded to changing atmospheric and oceanic conditions during the Holocene. Finally, this project aims to clarify the timing and extent of abrupt climate events such as the onset of the Younger Dryas cold interval (~12,900 years ago) and termination of the Medieval Climate Anomaly in order to establish regional patterns and possible forcing mechanisms.

This project will complement ongoing marine studies by providing high-resolution records of terrestrial environments from California, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Mexico and Guatemala utilizing a wide array of proxies (pollen, charcoal, sediment geochemistry, diatoms, and stable isotopes) to reconstruct environmental and climate change.

Why is this research important?

Modern and future climate of the Pacific coastal states and much of the western US is largely dictated by the sea surface temperatures and atmospheric conditions in the eastern North Pacific (e.g. ENSO and PDO). Understanding these climate scenarios is key to developing mitigation strategies. One issue that needs to be addressed is water availability, which is a great concern both presently and in projected future (global warming) climate scenarios.

Project Lead:

David Wahl

Project Team:

Lysanna Anderson, Liubov Presnetsova, Elinor Broadman

10 publications matching the specified parameters were found.

Miller, D., Wahl, D., McGeehin, J., Rosario, J., Oviatt, C., Anderson, L., Presnetsova, L., 2015, Limiting age for the Provo shoreline of Lake Bonneville. Quaternary International, v. 387, p. 99-105.
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Wahl, D., Hansen, R., Byrne, R., Anderson, L., and Schreiner, T., 2015, Holocene Climate Variability and Anthropogenic Impacts from Lago Paixban, a Perennial Wetland in Peten, Guatemala: Global and Planetary Change, v. 138, p. 70-81.
Available at:

Wahl, D., R. Byrne and L. Anderson, 2015, An 8700 year paleoclimate reconstruction from the southern Maya lowlands: Quaternary Science Reviews, v. 103 p. 19 -25.
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Wahl, D., Starratt, S., Anderson, L., Kusler, J., Fuller, C., Addison, J., and Wan, E., 2015, Holocene environmental changes inferred from biological and sedimentological proxies in a high elevation Great Basin lake in the Northern Ruby Mountains, Nevada, USA: Quaternary International. v. 38, p. 87-98.
Available at:

Dunning, N., Wahl, D., Beach, T., Luzzadder-Beach, S., Jones, J., McCormick, C., 2014, The End of the Beginning: Drought, Environmental Change, and the Preclassic to Classic Transition in the Maya Lowland, in Iannone, G., ed., The Great Maya Droughts in Cultural Context: Boulder, University Press of Colorado, p. 107-126.

Wahl, D., Byrne, R., and Anderson, L., 2014, An 8700 year paleoclimate reconstruction from the southern Maya lowlands: Quaternary Science Reviews, v. 103, p. 19-25.

Slate, J.L., Sarna-Wojcicki, A.M., Koning, D.J., Wan, E., Wahl, D.B., Connell, S.D., and Perkins, M.E., 2013, Upper Neogene tephrochronologic correlations of the Espanola Basin and Jemez Mountains volcanic eld, northern Rio Grande rift, north-central New Mexico, inHudson, M.R. and Grauch, V.J.S., eds., New Perspectives on Rio Grande Rift Basins: From Tectonics to Groundwater: Geological Society of America Special Paper, v. 494, p. 303-322.
Available at: 10.1130/2012.2494(12)

Wahl, D., Estrada-Belli, F., Anderson, L., 2013, A 3400 year paleolimnological record of prehispanic human-environment interactions in the Holmul region of the southern Maya lowlands: Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, v. 379-380, p.17-31.
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Wahl, D., Estrada-Belli, F., Anderson, L., 2013, Maiz, Clima y Fuego en la Region de Holmul, Peten, Guatemala, in Arroyo, B. and Mendez Molina, L., eds.,Proceedings, XXVI Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueologicas en Guatemala: Guatemala City, Guatemala, Ministerio de Cultura y Deportes, Instituto de Antropologia e Historia, Asociacion Tikal, p. 611-622.

Bhattacharya, T., Beach, T., and Wahl, D., 2011, An analysis of modern pollen rain from the Maya lowlands of northern Belize: Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology, v. 164, no. 1, p. 109-120.