Glacial and Quaternary geology of the northern Yellowstone area, Montana and Wyoming

GSA Field Guides

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DOI: 10.1130/2014.0037(09)



This field guide focuses on the glacial geology and paleoecology beginning in the Paradise Valley and progressing southward into northern Yellowstone National Park. During the last (Pinedale) glaciation, the northern Yellowstone outlet glacier flowed out of Yellowstone Park and down the Yellowstone River Valley into the Paradise Valley. The field trip will traverse the following Pinedale glacial sequence: (1) deposition of the Eightmile terminal moraines and outwash 16.5 ± 1.4 10Be ka in the Paradise Valley; (2) glacial recession of ~8 km and deposition of the Chico moraines and outwash 16.1 ± 1.7 10Be ka; (3) glacial recession of 45 km to near the northern Yellowstone boundary and moraine deposition during the Deckard Flats readjustment 14.2 ± 1.2 10Be ka; and (4) glacial recession of ~37 km and deposition of the Junction Butte moraines 15.2 ± 1.3 10Be ka (this age is a little too old based on the stratigraphic sequence). Yellowstone's northern range of sagebrush-grasslands and bison, elk, wolf, and bear inhabitants is founded on glacial moraines, sub-glacial till, and outwash deposited during the last glaciation. Floods released from glacially dammed lakes and a landslide-dammed lake punctuate this record.

The glacial geologic reconstruction was evaluated by calculation of basal shear stress, and yielded the following values for flow pattern in plan view: strongly converging—1.21 ± 0.12 bars (n = 15); nearly uniform—1.04 ± 0.16 bars (n = 11); and strongly diverging—0.84 ± 0.14 bars (n = 16). Reconstructed mass balance yielded accumulation and ablation each of ~3 km3/yr, with glacial movement near the equilibrium line altitude dominated by basal sliding.

Pollen and charcoal records from three lakes in northern Yellowstone provide information on the postglacial vegetation and fire history. Following glacial retreat, sparsely vegetated landscapes were colonized first by spruce parkland and then by closed subalpine forests. Regional fire activity increased significantly with the development of closed subalpine forests as a result of increased fuel biomass and warmer summers. Warm dry conditions prevailed at low elevations during the early Holocene, as indicated by the presence of steppe and open mixed conifer forest. At the same time, closed subalpine forests with low fire frequency were present at higher elevations, suggesting relatively wet summer conditions. Douglas fir populations expanded throughout northern Yellowstone in the middle Holocene as a result of effectively drier conditions than before, and a decline of mesophytic plant taxa during the late Holocene imply continued drying, even though fire frequency decreased in recent millennia.

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Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
Journal Article
Glacial and Quaternary geology of the northern Yellowstone area, Montana and Wyoming
Series title:
GSA Field Guides
Year Published:
Geological Society of America
Contributing office(s):
Geosciences and Environmental Change Science Center
15 p.
Larger Work Type:
Larger Work Subtype:
Journal Article
Larger Work Title:
GSA Field Guides
First page:
Last page:
United States
Other Geospatial:
Yellowstone Park;Yellowstone River Valley