Triassic Period: Tectonics and Paleoclimate

The Triassic period was a transition from the Paleozoic Era to the Mesozoic. It is situated between the end of the Permian period and the beginning of the Jurassic, lasting from 254 mya to 206 mya. As with almost any other period of the Earth's history, the Triassic had a unique climate and biota indigenous to that time. The paleoclimate was influenced largely by tectonic events that never existed before or since.

At the beginning of the Triassic period, the land masses of the world were still bound together into the vast supercontinent known as Pangaea. Pangaea began to break apart in the mid-Triassic, forming Gondwana (South America, Africa, India, Antarctica, and Australia) in the south and Laurasia (North America and Eurasia) in the north. The movement of the two resulting supercontinents was caused by sea floor spreading at the midocean ridge lying at the bottom of the Tethys Sea, the body of water between Gondwana and Laurasia. While Pangaea was breaking apart, mountains were forming on the west coast of North America by subduction of the ocean plates beneath the continental plates. Throughout the Middle to Late Triassic, mountain forming continued along the coast extending from Alaska to Chile. As mountains were forming on the Americas, North Africa was being split from Europe by the spreading rift. This division of the continents advanced further westward, eventually splitting eastern North America from North Africa.

The climate of the Triassic era was influenced by Pangaea, its centralized position stradling the equator, and the geologic activity associated with its breakup. Generally speaking, the continents were of high elevation compared to sea level, and the sea level did not change drastically during the period. Due to the low sea level, flooding of the continents to form shallow seas did not occur. Much of the inland area was isolated from the cooling and moist effects of the ocean. The result was a globally arid and dry climate, though regions near the coast most likely experienced seasonal monsoons. There were no polar ice caps, and the temperature gradient in the north-south direction is assumed to have been more gradual than present day. The sea level rose as the rift grew between North Africa and southern Europe, resulting in the flooding of Central and South Europe; the climates of terrestrial Europe were hot and dry, as in the Permian. Overall, it appears that the climate included both arid dune environments and moist river and lake habitats with gymnosperm forests.

Some conclusions can be drawn about more specific regional climates and species based on experimental research. The presence of coal-rich sequences in the high northern and southern latitudes, as well as the presence of large amphibians there, indicates that the paleoclimate was wetter in those areas. Living species of some Mesozoic ferns (including the families Osmundacae and Dipteridacae) now live in wet, shady areas under forest canopies, so it is likely that the paleoclimate their Triassic ancestors inhabitted were also damp and shaded. The Mesozoic era might also have had large, open areas with low-growing vegetation, including savannas or fern prairie with dry, nutrient poor soil populated by herbaceous plants, such as ferns of the families Matoniaceae and Gleicheniaceae. Thus, despite the union of the continental landmasses, the Triassic vegetation was quite provincial, though this decreased as the Triassic wore on. The northern forests at the beginning of the Triassic were dominated by conifers, ginkgos, cycads, and bennettitaleans, while the forests of Gondwana were dominated by Dicroidium and Thinnfeldia. By the end of the Triassic, both hemispheres gave way to conifer and cycad vegetation.

The Triassic-Jurassic boundary is similar to the Permo-Triassic boundary in that the global climate was not radically altered, though a major extinction of terrestrial vertebrates occurred. With the end of the Triassic and the beginning of the Jurassic, Pangaea continued to break apart, inevitably affecting the climate, though not as radically as it had during the Triassic.

For additional maps of the Triassic world, visit the Triassic page at the Paleogeography Through Geologic Time site by Dr. Ron Blakey of Northern Arizona University.

Find out more about the Triassic 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.

Messing, Charles G., Fall 1998. The Triassic Period (245-208mya) - Geography, Climate and Tectonics. Accessed 4/25/00.