Miocene Epoch: Tectonics and Paleoclimate

The Miocene saw a change in global circulation patterns due to slight position changes of the continents and globally warmer climates. Conditions on each continent changed somewhat because of these positional changes, however it was an overall increase in aridity through mountain building that favored the expansion of grasslands. Because the positions of continents in the Miocene world were similar to where they lie today, it is easiest to describe the plate movements and resulting changes in the paleoclimate by discussing individual continents.

In North America, the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountain ranges formed, causing a non-seasonal and drier mid-continent climate. The increasing occurrences of drought and an overall decrease in absolute rainfall promoted drier climates. Additionally, grasslands began to spread, and this led to an evolutionary radiation of open habitat herbivores and carnivores. The first of the major periods of immigration via the Bering land connection between Siberia and Alaska occurred in the middle of the Miocene, and by the end of the Miocene the Panama isthmus had begun to form between Central and South America.

Plate tectonics also contributed to the rise of the Andes Mountains in South America, which led to the formation of a rain shadow effect in the southeastern part of the continent. The movement of the plates also facilitated trends favoring non-desert and highland environments.

In Australia, the climate saw an overall increase aridity as it continued to drift northwards, though the continent went through many wet and dry periods. The number of rainforests began to decrease, to be replace by dry forests and woodlands. The vegetation began to shift from closed broad-leaved forests to more open, drier forests as well as grasslands and deserts.

Eurasia also experienced increasing aridification during the Miocene. Extensive steppe vegetation began to appear, and the grasses became abundant. In southern Asia, grasslands expanded, generating a greater diversity of habitats. However, southern Asia was not the only area to experience an increase in habitat variability. Southern Europe also saw an increase in grasslands, but maintained its moist forests. Although most of Eurasia experienced increasing aridity, some places did not. The climate in some Eurasian regions, such as Syria and Iran, remained wet and cool.

During the Miocene, Eurasia underwent some significant tectonic rearrangements. The Tethys Sea connection between the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean was severed in the Mid-Miocene causing the increase in aridity in Southern Europe. The Paratethys barrier, which isolated Western Europe from the exchange of flora and fauna, was periodically disrupted, allowing for the migration of animals. Additionally, faunal routes with Africa were well established and occasional land bridges were also created.

Africa also encountered some tectonic movement, including rifting in East Africa and the union of the African-Arabian plate with Eurasia. Associated with this rifting, a major uplift in East Africa created a rain shadow effect between the wet Central-West Africa and dry East Africa. The union of the continents of Africa and Eurasia caused interruption and contraction of the Tethys Sea, thereby depleting the primary source of atmospheric moisture in that area. Thus rainfall was significantly reduced, as were the moderating effects of sea temperature on the neighboring land climates. However, this union enabled more vigorous exchanges of flora and fauna between Africa and Eurasia.

Antarctica became isolated from the other continents in the Miocene, leading to the formation of a circumpolar ocean circulation. Global ocean and atmospheric circulation were also affected by the formation of this circumpolar circulation pattern, as it restricted north-south circulation flows. This reduced the mixing of warm, tropical ocean water and cold, polar water causing the buildup of the Antarctic polar ice cap. This accelerated the development of global seasonality, aridity, and enhanced global cooling.

Find out more about the Tertiary paleontology and geology of North America at the Paleontology Portal.

Anna K. Behrensmeyer (et al.), 1992. Terrestrial ecosystems through time: evolutionary paleoecology of terrestrial plants and animals. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.