Pluvial lakes in the Great Basin of the western United States: a view from the outcrop

Quaternary Science Reviews
By: , and 



Paleo-lakes in the western United States provide geomorphic and hydrologic records of climate and drainage-basin change at multiple time scales extending back to the Miocene. Recent reviews and studies of paleo-lake records have focused on interpretations of proxies in lake sediment cores from the northern and central parts of the Great Basin. In this review, emphasis is placed on equally important studies of lake history during the past ∼30 years that were derived from outcrop exposures and geomorphology, in some cases combined with cores. Outcrop and core records have different strengths and weaknesses that must be recognized and exploited in the interpretation of paleohydrology and paleoclimate. Outcrops and landforms can yield direct evidence of lake level, facies changes that record details of lake-level fluctuations, and geologic events such as catastrophic floods, drainage-basin changes, and isostatic rebound. Cores can potentially yield continuous records when sampled in stable parts of lake basins and can provide proxies for changes in lake level, water temperature and chemistry, and ecological conditions in the surrounding landscape. However, proxies such as stable isotopes may be influenced by several competing factors the relative effects of which may be difficult to assess, and interpretations may be confounded by geologic events within the drainage basin that were unrecorded or not recognized in a core. The best evidence for documenting absolute lake-level changes lies within the shore, nearshore, and deltaic sediments that were deposited across piedmonts and at the mouths of streams as lake level rose and fell. We review the different shorezone environments and resulting deposits used in such reconstructions and discuss potential estimation errors.

Lake-level studies based on deposits and landforms have provided paleohydrologic records ranging from general changes during the past million years to centennial-scale details of fluctuations during the late Pleistocene and Holocene. Outcrop studies have documented the integration histories of several important drainage basins, including the Humboldt, Amargosa, Owens, and Mojave river systems, that have evolved since the Miocene within the active tectonic setting of the Great Basin; these histories have influenced lake levels in terminal basins. Many pre-late Pleistocene lakes in the western Great Basin were significantly larger and record wetter conditions than the youngest lakes. Outcrop-based lake-level data provide important checks on core-based proxy interpretations; we discuss four such comparisons. In some cases, such as for Lakes Owens and Manix, outcrop and core data synthesis yields stronger and more complete records; in other cases, such as for Bonneville and Lahontan, conflicts point toward reconsideration of confounding factors in interpretation of core-based proxies.

Study Area

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Pluvial lakes in the Great Basin of the western United States: a view from the outcrop
Series title Quaternary Science Reviews
DOI 10.1016/j.quascirev.2014.04.012
Volume 97
Year Published 2014
Language English
Publisher Elsevier
Contributing office(s) Geosciences and Environmental Change Science Center
Description 25 p.
Larger Work Type Article
Larger Work Subtype Journal Article
Larger Work Title Quaternary Science Reviews
First page 33
Last page 57
Country United States
Other Geospatial Great Basin
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