Closed-basin pluvial lakes are sensitive recorders of effective moisture, and they provide a terrestrial signal of climate change that can be compared to marine and ice records of glacial-interglacial cycles. Although the most recent deep-lake cycle in the western Great Basin (at ca. 16 ka) has been studied intensively, comparatively little is known about the longer-term Quaternary lacustrine history of the region. Lacustrine features higher than those of the most recent highstand have been discovered in many locations throughout the western Great Basin. Qualitative geomorphic and soil studies of shoreline sequences above the latest Pleistocene level suggest that their ages increase as a function of increasing altitude.
The results of cosmogenic nuclide dating using chlorine-36 depth profiles from three sites in Nevada (Walker Lake, Columbus Salt Marsh, and Newark Valley), combined with uranium-series and radiocarbon ages, corroborate the geomorphic and soil evidence. The 36Cl results are consistent with available 14C ages and together indicate that the most recent highstands of all three lakes occurred ca. 20–15 ka, late in marine isotope stage (MIS) 2, as shown by previous ages. The 36Cl ages indicate that older lakes in all three basins reached highstands between 100 and 50 ka, and most likely during MIS 4. Shorelines of this age are at about the same or higher altitudes as the younger, MIS 2 shorelines in those basins. The 36Cl results combined with uranium-series ages and one tephra correlation obtained on shorelines higher in altitude than those of MIS 4 and 2 lakes suggest that there were also major lake highstands in the western Great Basin at ca. 100–200 ka, likely corresponding with MIS 6, and during at least two older periods. From these results, we conclude that the preserved shorelines show an apparent decrease in maximum levels with time, suggesting long-term drying of the region since the early middle Pleistocene.