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Quaternary Glaciation and Tectonism in the Southeastern Sierra Nevada, Inyo County, California


Gillespie, Alan Reed (1982) Quaternary Glaciation and Tectonism in the Southeastern Sierra Nevada, Inyo County, California. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/GNES-QH83.


The southeastern Sierra Nevada consists of three geographic regions. From west to east, they are: an upland region across the crest, a steep east-facing escarpment along which Owens Valley has partly subsided, and foothill blocks intermediate to the Sierra Nevada and Owens Valley. Farther east, Owens Valley is a deep graben separating the Sierra Nevada and the Inyo Range.

The main goals of this thesis were the detailed mapping of Quaternary glacial and other deposits in these regions, dating of critical events, and geomorphic analysis of the range front. The focus was on Pleistocene moraines near the range front. The motivation of this research was to improve our understanding of the chronology of Pleistocene events, to characterize details of the tectonic history of the Sierra, to infer faulting, erosion, and deposition rates, and to provide a basis for the comparison of the Quaternary geology in the southeastern Sierra and in more intensively studied regions in the central and northern Sierra and elsewhere.

The study area extended from the alluvial fans of Owens Valley west to the Sierra crest from latitude 36°45' N to 37°00' N. It included the southern part of the Big Pine volcanic field, an eruptive center for basaltic lavas for most of the Pleistocene Epoch. Elevations within the study area ranged from about 1000 m (Owens Valley) to about 4000 m (peaks along the crest).

Throughout the study area the principal rocks are granodiorite and quartz monzonite of Cretaceous age. Plutons are rather small, and individual drainages generally include more than one. In the southern part of the study area, Jurassic-Triassic metavolcanic rocks are found as roof pendants. These rocks, originally ranging in composition from basalt to rhyolite, are most common near the Sierra crest. In the northern canyons of the study area, Paleozoic metasedimentary rocks including sandy marbles and biotite schist replace the metavolcanic pendants. The foothill blocks are identical to the Sierras in composition.

Below the foothills coalescing alluvial fans grade a few km east to the alluvium and lacustrine sediments of the Owens River and Owens Lake. These sediments have been shown in geophysical studies to mask a second escarpment as high as the one of the range front, and the total bedrock relief from the Sierra crest to the floor of the graben is as much as 6 km.

During the Quaternary Period the southeastern Sierra Nevada was characterized by the down-faulting of Owens Valley along two zones, one a series of normal faults along the range front (Independence Fault) and the other a series of faults along the center of the valley (Owens Valley fault zone). This same period has seen the cutting of deep canyons through the 2-km-high escarpment. During repeated glaciations these canyons were widened and deepened. Traces of at least seven glaciations were found during this study. Moraines and other deposits left during these glaciations could be distinguished based on the degree of weathering of granitic clasts, vegetative cover, and morphologic characteristics. Absolute age limits were obtained for two of the Pleistocene glaciations by radiometric dating of basalt flows interfingered with the moraines.

Three of the recognized glaciations, probably corresponding to the Matthes, Recess Peak, and Hilgard neoglaciations found by J.H. Birman in the central Sierra Nevada, occurred during the Holocene Epoch. The youngest glaciers (Matthes glaciation) left unconsolidated and unvegetated till in stagnant rock glaciers and moraines in cirques on high peaks. Some rock glaciers are still ice-cored. Extending out from the cirques and into the upper reaches of the canyons are moraines correlating to the Recess Peak glaciation. Till is generally consolidated and supports heavy lichen growth and bushes but few trees. The oldest Holocene glaciation (Hilgard) left few large moraines in the study area. Hilgard glaciers extended much farther down-canyon than the younger Holocene glaciers, sometimes within one or two km of the Tioga terminal moraines. Those Hilgard terminal moraines which were found have been barely breached by streams. Moraines tend to be heavily forested, and lakes are largely unsedimented. The Hilgard glaciation may have simply been the last stade of the Tioga glaciation from the evidence found in this study.

At least four Pleistocene glaciations occurred in the southeastern Sierra Nevada. All four postdate most of the significant incision of streams through the escarpment. The three youngest probably correlate with the Tioga, Tenaya, and Tahoe stages (in order of increasing age) recognized throughout the Sierra. In each case, moraine morphology has been well preserved. Tioga moraines were found down to about 2200 m elevation. Nested sets of moraines were common. The terminal moraines of the youngest of these were sometimes intact. lakes were rare; one (Sawmill Meadow) was completely sedimented. Granitic boulders in the moraines were largely unweathered. Weathering of boulders in Tenaya moraines was similar, but a small fraction of granitic boulders were grusy. Boulders from Tahoe moraines were conspicuously weathered, and the moraines themselves were rounded and gullied.

The oldest group of moraines probably significantly predates the Tahoe glaciation. It is nevertheless post-Sherwin. Moraines in this group were found in five of the eight canyons studied. While obviously eroded, these moraines still retained their original shape. All surficial boulders were heavily weathered, but some exposed in road cuts were fresh. No moraines of Sherwin age were identified, although Sherwin till is widespread only a few km to the north. However, on plateaus and ridges 200 to 300 m above the modern canyons near the Sierra crest were found ancient diamictons, some of which could be till. Remnants of U-shaped valleys preserved as high passes across the crest or as cols between canyons east of the crest may be testimonials to ancient glaciers of Sherwin age or older.

Radiometric dating (40Ar - 39Ar) of basalts interfingered with moraines in Sawmill Canyon provided a new upper limit of 0.12 my for a moraine of the Tahoe glaciation, and a range of 0.13 - 0.46 my for one pre-Tahoe glaciation. These results confirm that the Tahoe glaciation occurred during the Wisconsin stage of the continental ice age, and conclusively demonstrate the existence of pre-Wisconsin glaciers in the southern Sierra. Relative dating based on acoustic wave speeds through weathered boulders on the moraines indicates the age of the pre-Wisconsin moraine may be close to the upper limit.

Alluvial fans appear to have aggraded early in the Wisconsin glaciation (Tahoe glaciation). Subsequently, the fan heads have been incised and the locus of deposition has moved eastward down the fans. The Tenaya and Tioga glaciers during the late Wisconsin stage left outwash plains and terraces along streams cut into the older fans, but aggradation during these events was considerably less than earlier.

Three ages of fans were found. The oldest fanglomerate probably is pre-Wisconsin and is exposed in regions protected from later deposition. The heavily weathered fan deposits of this group overlie basalts which appear to be contemporaneous with dated 1.1 - 1.2 my-old basalts nearby. In the middle elevations of the fans, roughly 10 m of fanglomerate was deposited over the old fanglomerate, probably during the Tahoe glaciation. Deposition rates probably are about 0.1 mm/y for the late Pleistocene Epoch. The extent and distribution of the youngest fans (Tenaya-Tioga) are variable, but they are generally found downstream from the incised Tahoe fan heads.

Faulting along the range front appears to have been dip-slip only. The offset rate along the range-front faults was determined at several canyons where the fault crossed dated moraines or lava flows. At least during the Wisconsin glaciation faulting on this zone appears to have been erratic, with rates ranging from zero to 0.5 mm/y or more. Offset moraines and terraces at Independence Creek indicated a faulting rate of 0.1 mm/y. Only a few km to the north, Tahoe moraines of both forks of Oak Creek were not offset at all, although scarps could be seen on adjacent hillsides. At Sawmill Creek an offset lava flow gave a lower limit of 0.5 mm/y. It seems that during the late Pleistocene Epoch, offset on the range front faults has been less than on the mid-valley faults east of the study area. Geodetic studies have suggested modern strain rates of 2.2 mm/y for the Owens Valley fault zone.

Basalts found in canyons through the escarpment and on terraces and ridges in the foothills to the east document stream erosion during the Pleistocene Epoch. Ridgetop basalts, dated at 1.2 my, stand at least 125 m above the modern streams through the foothills. This indicates an erosion rate of ~ 0.1 mm/y. A comparable rate of ~ 0.15 mm/y for the last 0.46 my was found for Sawmill Creek within the Sierra Nevada. Thus at least during the late Pleistocene Epoch erosion rates in the Sierra and in the foothills have been similar.

Patches of boulders and gravels atop the basalt show that some time after 1.2 my BP the foothill block was submerged by alluvial fans. Incision may have begun in response to the inception or renewal of subsidence of the graben along the Owens Valley fault zone.

Extensive volcanism in the Big Pine Volcanic field appears to have begun at least 1.2 my ago, and has continued sporadically up to perhaps 0.05 my ago. Minor eruptions may have occurred more recently.

The eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada consists of two zones of truncated ridges. Within the study area, the upper zone is about 950 m high; the lower is about 750 m high. Triangular facets of the upper zone have a gradient of only ~ 24°, lower than slopes of ~ 29° in the lower zone. This could be explained if subsidence of Owens Valley along the range-front faults occurred in two great pulses.

Both absolute and relative dating methods were refined for this study. Absolute dating of the K-poor basaltic lavas was done indirectly, by 40Ar - 39Ar analysis of K-rich granitic xenoliths found in the lava. These ancient xenoliths were partially degassed of their accumulated 40Ar during heating in the magma, and it proved possible to date this heating event.

In addition to conventional relative dating methods, a new quantitative approach based on the speed of acoustic waves through individual clasts in a deposit was investigated. This method had been used only once before, on terrace deposits. The technique proved to be very useful, and was capable of discriminating moraines successfully in well-studied canyons in the central Sierra. Acoustic wave speeds may be controlled by the abundance of intergranular cracks in granitic boulders. If this is the case, then this technique relies on different processes than those exploited by conventional methods of relative dating. The successful application to moraines in this study enhances our ability to analyse glacial sequences and complements conventional semi-quantitative methods of relative dating.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:Geology; glaciation; Sierra Nevada; argon-argon dating; Owens Valley; Inyo Range; glacial deposits; alluvial fans; granodiorite; Matthes Glaciers; moraines; Wisconsin glaciation
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Geological and Planetary Sciences
Major Option:Geology
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Ahrens, Thomas J.
Thesis Committee:
  • Ahrens, Thomas J. (chair)
  • Allen, Clarence R.
  • Sieh, Kerry E.
  • Sharp, Robert P.
  • Wasserburg, Gerald J.
  • Clark, M. M.
Defense Date:23 March 1982
Non-Caltech Author Email:arg3 (AT)
Additional Information:Supplemental Files Information: Quaternary glaciation and tectonism in the southeastern Sierra Nevada, Inyo County, California: Supplement 1 from "Quaternary Glaciation and Tectonism in the Southeastern Sierra Nevada, Inyo County, California" (Thesis). Geographic Location Bounding Box: -118.25 Degrees East; -118.5 Degrees West; 37.0 Degrees North; 36.75 Degrees South. Map of zones of triangular facets on the escarpment of the Sierra Nevada; Profile of the Sierra Nevada: Supplement 2 from "Quaternary Glaciation and Tectonism in the Southeastern Sierra Nevada, Inyo County, California" (Thesis).
Funding AgencyGrant Number
NSFEAR 78-01787
NSFEAR 79-19997
Record Number:CaltechETD:etd-04102003-122837
Persistent URL:
Related URLs:
URLURL TypeDescription 1 in CaltechDATA: Quaternary glaciation and tectonism in the southeastern Sierra Nevada, Inyo County, California 2 in CaltechDATA: Map of zones of triangular facets on the escarpment of the Sierra Nevada; Profile of the Sierra Nevada
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:1324
Deposited By: Imported from ETD-db
Deposited On:10 Apr 2003
Last Modified:29 May 2020 00:24

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PDF (Quaternary glaciation and tectonism in the southeastern Sierra Nevada, Inyo County, California) - Supplemental Material
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PDF (Map of zones of triangular facets on the escarpment of the Sierra Nevada; Profile of the Sierra Nevada) - Supplemental Material
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