Abstract

We employed a systemwide approach, a large and robust set of radiocarbon ages, and modern process analogs to interpret the Holocene history of forest fire–related sedimentation and overall alluvial activity in northeastern Yellowstone National Park. Debris-flow and flood events following the 1988 fires provided facies models for interpreting the stratigraphic record of fire-related sedimentation within valley-side alluvial fans of Soda Butte Creek. Fire-related deposits make up approximately 30% of the late Holocene fan alluvium. Fifty 14C ages on fire-related events cluster within the intervals of 3300–2900, 2600–2400, 2200–1800, and 1400–800 yr B.P. and suggest earlier episodes of large fires and fan aggradation around 7500, 5500, and 4600–4000 yr B.P. A major pulse of fire-related debris-flow activity between 950 and 800 yr B.P. coincided with the height of the widely recognized Medieval Warm Period (ca. a.d. 1050–1200). Instrumental climate records over the last ∼100 yr in Yellowstone imply that the intensity and interannual variability of summer precipitation are greater during warmer periods, enhancing the potential for severe short-term drought, major forest fires, and storm-generated fan deposition.

Along lower Soda Butte Creek, fill-cut terrace treads were created by lateral migration of channels and accumulation of overbank sediments ca. 8000 yr B.P. (terrace level T1a), 7000–5600 (T1b), 3100–2600 (T2), 2000–1300 (T3), and post–800 yr B.P. (T4). These periods coincide with overbank sedimentation on Slough Creek and the Lamar River but alternate with intervals of fire-related fan deposition, implying a strong climatic control. Local paleoclimatic data suggest cooler, effectively wetter conditions during terrace tread formation. In warmer, drier intervals, reduced average runoff in axial streams results in meander-belt narrowing; concurrent channel incision may be caused by infrequent large floods. Greater resistance to downcutting, however, allowed fewer terraces to be formed along Slough Creek and the Lamar River. Alluvial systems in northeastern Yellowstone show a clear response to millennial-scale climatic cycles, wherein alluvial fans aggrade and prograde over flood plains in drier periods. Axial streams widen their flood plains and trim back the fans during wetter periods. “Small-scale” climatic fluctuations of the Holocene thus had substantial impact on postglacial landscapes in northeastern Yellowstone.

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