Using NOAA NCDC Pollen Database to study vegetation history

Cathy Whitlock
Montana State University
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This lab exercise uses SiteSeer, a public domain software available through NOAA/NCDC, to learn how to retrieve and query the NOAA NCDC pollen database. Students first work through a set of simple exercises that query the data base, and then finish the lab with an exercise that uses pollen data to reconstruct vegetation history.

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I use this exercise in my intermediate and upper-level paleoecology courses. It serves as an introduction to the NOAA World Center for Paleoclimatology.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students should be introduced to pollen diagrams (i.e., how they are constructed and how they are used to reconstruct vegetation history).

How the activity is situated in the course

This is a stand-alone exercise.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Pollen data and their use in reconstructing past vegetation

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Analysis and synthesis of site-specific data to interpret regional patterns of vegetation change

Other skills goals for this activity

The final exercises can be done with students working in groups, and I usually end the lab with a group presentation in which the results are plotted on an overhead transparency with a map of eastern North America.

Description of the activity/assignment

This lab follows the second or third lecture on pollen analysis and Quaternary paleoecology. It should come after students have been introduced to pollen diagrams and covered such topics as: what is pollen, how are pollen grains dispersed, how are pollen records obtained from lakes and bogs, how are modern pollen data sets used to interpret fossil pollen data, and how are pollen diagrams designed and interpreted.

This lab serves as an introduction to the pollen database available from NOAA National Climate Data Center World Data Center for Paleoclimatology ( ( This site may be offline. ) ). The lab allows students to browse the contents of the SiteSeer pollen data base, which contains site information and summary pollen diagrams. SiteSeer allows searching by Site Name or Contact Person. It also allows limited filtering of the data by Age, Range, Location, and Pollen taxon. SiteSeer is a teaching tool to explain how to use and interpret pollen data. With this familiarity, students can obtain up-to-date information on pollen sites and actual pollen data from the NCDC WDC web page, using the Data Search tool and Web Mapper.

This lab exercise focuses on sites in the North American Pollen Data Base (NAPD), showing the many ways one might obtain this information. Working through a set of questions helps students understand the impressive pollen database available to study the vegetation history of North America.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Based on their answers and the quality of the group presentation.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Teaching materials and tips

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