Abstract

We report the discovery of numerous in situ Miocene and Pliocene airfall volcanic ashes that occur within the hyperarid Dry Valleys region of the Transantarctic Mountains in southern Victoria Land, Antarctica. Ashes that occur above 1000 m elevation rest at the ground surface, covered only by a thin ventifact pavement 1 to 2 cm thick. The ash deposits are loose and unconsolidated and show no signs of chemical weathering. Laser-fusion 40Ar/39Ar analyses of volcanic crystals and glass shards indicate that the ashes range from 4.33 Ma to 15.15 Ma in age. The Arena Valley ash (4.33 ± 0.07 Ma) rests on the surface of a well-developed desert pavement and ultraxerous soil profile at 1410 m elevation. Lack of geomorphic evidence of liquid water on surficial sediments coeval and older than the Arena Valley ash, together with the pristine condition of volcanic crystals and lack of authigenic clay formation, indicates a cold desert at and since 4.33 Ma. The Beacon Valley ash (10.66 ± 0.29 Ma), the Koenig Valley ash (13.65 ± 0.06 Ma), and the Nibelungen Valley ash (15.15 ± 0.02 Ma) fill the upper half of relict sand-wedge troughs that form only in cold-desert conditions. The lack of authigenic clay-sized minerals in these ash deposits, along with preservation of sharp lateral contacts with surrounding sand-and-gravel deposits, suggests that frozen conditions (without rain or well-developed active layers during summer months) have persisted in Beacon, Koenig, and Nibelungen Valleys since ash deposition. Ash-avalanche deposits that rest on rectilinear slopes contain matrix ash dated to 7.42 ± 0.31 Ma in upper Arena Valley and 11.28 ± 0.05 Ma in lower Arena Valley. Little slope development has occurred since emplacement of these ash-avalanche deposits. Such slope stability is consistent with cold-desert conditions well below 0 °C. Taken together, these ash deposits point to persistent polar conditions similar to the present at elevations above 1000 m in the western Dry Valleys region during at least the last 15.0 m.y. This conclusion contradicts the view that, during part of the Pliocene epoch, East Antarctica was largely free of glacier ice and that scrub vegetation (Nothofagus, Southern Beech) survived along the Transantarctic Mountain front in the Dry Valleys region and to at least lat 86°S (Webb and Harwood, 1993). Instead, it supports marine and geomorphological evidence that calls for a stable Antarctic cryosphere, much the same as today, since middle Miocene time.

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