Pleistocene lake outburst floods and fan formation along the eastern Sierra Nevada, California: implications for the interpretation of intermontane lacustrine records

Douglas I. Benn, Lewis A. Owen, Robert Finkel, Samuel Clemmens

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Variations in the rock flour fraction in intermontane lacustrine sediments have the potential to provide more complete records of glacier fluctuations than moraine sequences, which are subject to erosional censoring. Construction of glacial chronologies from such records relies on the assumption that rock flour concentration is a simple function of glacier extent. However, other factors may influence the delivery of glacigenic sediments to intermontane lakes, including paraglacial adjustment of slope and fluvial systems to deglaciation, variations in precipitation and snowmelt, and lake outburst floods. We have investigated the processes and chronology of sediment transport on the Tuttle and Lone Pine alluvial fans in the eastern Sierra Nevada, California, USA, to elucidate the links between former glacier systems located upstream and the long sedimentary record from Owens Lake located downstream. Aggradation of both fans reflects sedimentation by three contrasting process regimes: (1) high magnitude, catastrophic floods, (2) fluvial or glacifluvial river systems, and (3) debris flows and other slope processes. Flood deposits are represented by multiple boulder beds exposed in section, and extensive networks of large palaeochannels and boulder deposits on both fan surfaces. Palaeohydrological analysis implies peak discharges in the order of 103–104 m3 s−1, most probably as the result of catastrophic drainage of ice-, moraine-, and landslide-dammed lakes. Cosmogenic radionuclide surface exposure dating shows that at least three flood events are represented on each fan, at 9–13, 16–18 and 32–44 ka (Tuttle Fan); and at not, vert, similar23–32, not, vert, similar80–86 ka, and a poorly constrained older event (Lone Pine Fan). Gravels and sands exposed in both fans represent fluvial and/or glacifluvial sediment transport from the Sierra Nevada into Owens Valley, and show that river systems incised and reworked older sediment stored in the fans. We argue that millennial-scale peaks in rock flour abundance in the Owens Lake core reflect (1) fluctuations in primary subglacial erosion in the catchments in response to glacier advance–retreat cycles; (2) short-lived pulses of sediment delivered directly by catastrophic flood events; and (3) sediment released from storage in alluvial fans by fluvial and glacifluvial incision and reworking. As a result of this complexity the coarse sediment peaks in lake deposits may not simply reflect periods of increased glaciation, but likely also reflect changes in sediment storage and flux controlled by paraglacial processes. Current dating evidence is inadequate to allow precise correlation of individual flood or incision events with the Owens Lake rock flour record, although given the widespread occurrence of flood deposits in fans along the eastern margins of the Sierra Nevada, it is clear that fan deposition and incision played a very important role in modulating the delivery of glacigenic sediment to Owens Lake.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2729-2748
Number of pages20
JournalQuaternary Science Reviews
Issue number21-22
Early online date19 May 2006
Publication statusPublished - 01 Nov 2006


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