Historic fluctuations and late Quaternary deposits of Tulare Lake, in the southern San Joaquin Valley, indicate that maximum lake size has depended chiefly on the height of a frequently overtopped spillway. This dependence gives Tulare Lake a double record of paleoclimate. Climate in the Tulare Lake region has influenced the degree to which the lake fills its basin during dry seasons and dry years: during the past 100,000–130,000 yr, incidence of desiccation of Tulare Lake (inferred from stiffness, mud cracks, and other hand-specimen properties) has been broadly consistent with the lake's salinity and depth (inferred from diatoms and ostracodes) and with regional vegetation (inferred from pollen). Climate, however, also appears to control basin capacity itself: Tulare Lake becomes large as a consequence of glacial-outwash aggradation of its alluvial-fan dam.
Late Wisconsin enlargement of Tulare Lake probably resulted from the last major glaciation of the Sierra Nevada. The lake's spillway coincides with the axis of the glacial-outwash fan of a major Sierra Nevada stream; moreover, sediment deposited in the transgressive lake resembles glacial rock flour from the Sierra Nevada. Differential tectonic subsidence and deposition by a Coast Range creek facilitated the building of Tulare Lake's fan dam during the late Wisconsin but were less important than deposition of Sierra Nevada outwash. Four stratigraphically consistent 14C dates on peat and wood give an age of 26,000 yr B.P. for the start of Tulare Lake's late Wisconsin transgression. The last major Sierra Nevada glaciation (Tioga glaciation) thus may have begun about 26,000 yr B.P., provided that vigorous glacial-outwash deposition began early in the glaciation. Onset of the Tioga glaciation about 26,000 yr B.P. is consistent with new stratigraphic and radiocarbon data from the northeastern San Joaquin Valley. These data suggest that the principal episode of glacial-outwash deposition of Wisconsin age began in the San Joaquin Valley after 32,000 yr B.P., rather than at least 40,000 yr B.P., as previously believed.
An earlier enlargement of Tulare Lake probably resulted from a fan dam produced by the penultimate major (Tahoe) glaciation of the Sierra Nevada. Average sedimentation rates inferred from depths to a 600,000-yr-old clay and from radiocarbon dates indicate that this earlier lake originated no later than 100,000 yr B.P. The Tahoe glaciation therefore is probably pre-Wisconsin.