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Pleistocene pluvial lakes of the American West: a short history of research

Antony R. Orme
Antony R. Orme
Department of Geography, University of California, Los Angeles, CA 90095, USA (e-mail:
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January 01, 2008


Scientific investigations of Pleistocene pluvial lakes in the American West occurred in five phases. The pioneer phase prior to 1870 saw former lakes identified by missionary priests, fur trappers, military expeditions and railroad surveyors. The classic phase, between 1870 and 1920, linked initially with independent surveys and, after 1879, with the United States Geological Survey and with irrigation and mining ventures, saw most lakes identified and described by such worthies as Gilbert, Russell, Gale, Waring and Thompson. A consolidation phase from 1920 to 1955 provided synthesis and new data but, in the absence of age controls, saw much speculation about temporal links between pluvial lakes, glacial stages, and climate forcing. The initial dating phase between 1955 and 1980 saw radiocarbon dating applied to late Pleistocene lakes and their Holocene relics and successors. The integrative phase since 1980, supported by enhanced field, remote sensing, laboratory and dating techniques, has seen an array of issues involving pluvial lakes linked to changes in regional ecology and global climate. In the above sequence, progress from one phase to the next reflected changes in the intellectual climate and advances in scientific methods. Today, we reflect on the episodic but cumulative increase in knowledge about late Pleistocene pluvial lakes, especially for Lake Bonneville, Lake Lahontan and the eastern California lake cascade. The record of earlier Pleistocene lakes, in some cases successors to Miocene and Pliocene lakes, is less certain because of deformation and erosion or burial. Continuing challenges involve evaluation of the Pleistocene lake record as a whole in the context of late Cenozoic tectonic and climate change, and of contemporary environmental and water-resource issues.

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Figures & Tables


Geological Society, London, Special Publications

History of Geomorphology and Quaternary Geology

R. H. Grapes
R. H. Grapes
Korea University, South Korea
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D. Oldroyd
D. Oldroyd
The University of New South Wales, Australia
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A. Grigelis
A. Grigelis
Lithuanian Academy of Sciences, Lithuania
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Geological Society of London
ISBN electronic:
Publication date:
January 01, 2008




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