Long-term variations in Holocene flood magnitude were quantified from the bankfull dimensions of abandoned channels preserved on floodplain surfaces in the northern Uinta Mountains of northeastern Utah. Cross-sectional areas of abandoned channels were reconstructed, and relationships derived from the modern gage records were used to estimate bankfull discharges from bankfull cross-section areas. The results indicate systematic (nonrandom) variations of bankfull floods in the northern Uinta Mountains. Large floods, as much as 10%–15% greater than modern, dominated from 8500 to 5000 calendar yr B.P., and again from 2800 to 1000 cal yr B.P. Small floods, as much as 15%–20% less than modern, characterize the periods from 5000 to 2800 cal yr B.P., and from 1000 cal yr B.P. to near present.
The middle and late Holocene record of bankfull flood magnitude compares well with independent evidence for climatic variation in the area. The early Holocene record indicates that larger than modern bankfull floods coincide with warmer than modern mean annual temperature. We hypothesize that an increased range of magnitude for seasonal solar radiation during the early Holocene favored the accumulation and rapid melting of deep snowpacks in the high Uinta Mountains, thus producing large floods despite warmer mean annual temperatures. The episode of smaller than modern bank-full floods between 5000 and 2800 cal yr B.P. coincides with records of increased forest fire frequency in the northern Uintas. Larger than modern floods from 2800 to 1000 cal yr B.P. coincide with a local decrease in forest fire frequency and evidence for minor local glacial readvances. The decrease in flood magnitudes following 1000 cal yr B.P. corresponds to numerous local and regional records of warming during the Medieval Climatic Anomaly.