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Professional Paper 1755

Terrestrial Cosmogenic-Nuclide Dating of Alluvial Fans in Death Valley, California

By Michael N. Machette, Janet L. Slate, and Fred M. Phillips


Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (47 MB)We have used terrestrial cosmogenic nuclides (TCN) to establish the age of some of the most extensive Quaternary alluvial fans in Death Valley, California. These intermediate-age alluvial fans are most extensive on the western side of the valley, where tectonic deformation is considerably less pronounced than on the eastern side of the valley. These fans are characterized by a relatively smooth, densely packed desert pavement formed by well-varnished (blackened) clasts. These surfaces have been mapped as the Q2 gravel by previous workers and as unit Qai (intermediate age) by us. However, the intermediate-age gravels probably contain multiple subunits, as evidenced by slight differences in morphologic expression, soil formation, and inset geomorphic relations. The TCN technique used herein sums the cosmogenic 36Cl in approximately 2.5-meter-deep profiles through soil and host alluvium, thus avoiding some of the problems associated with the more typical surface-exposure dating of boulders or smaller clasts.
      Our TCN 36Cl dating of 12 depth profiles indicates that these intermediate-age (Qai) alluvial fans range from about 100 to 40 kilo-annum (ka), with a mean age of about 70 ka. An alternative interpretation is that alluvial unit Qai was deposited in two discrete episodes from 90 to 80 ka and from 60 to 50 ka, before and after MIS (marine oxygen-isotope stage) 4 (respectively). Without an intermediate-age unit, such as MIS 4 lake deposits, we can neither disprove nor prove that Qai was deposited in two discrete intervals or over a longer range of time. Thus, in Death Valley, alluvial unit Qai largely brackets MIS 4, which is not associated with a deep phase of Lake Manly. These Qai fans extend to elevations of about –46 meters (150 feet below sea level) and have not been transgressed by Lake Manly, suggesting that MIS 4 or MIS 2 lakes were rather shallow in Death Valley, perhaps because they lacked inflow from surface runoff of the Sierra Nevada drainages through Panamint Valley and over Wingate Wash.
      A remnant of ancient lake shoreline deposits that once extended across the Hanaupah Canyon fan constrains the timing and extent of the last deep cycle of Pleistocene Lake Manly. The lacustrine delta complex yields a 36Cl depth-profile date of 130 ka, which is consistent with deposition during a highstand of Lake Manly at the end of MIS 6. These deposits are presently at an altitude of about 30 meters above sea level (asl), which relates to a lake with a maximum depth of about 115 meters. Remnants of shoreline deposits at higher elevations on the southern margin of the Hanaupah Canyon fan complex are cut across older alluvium (unit Qao) and may be related to an MIS 6 highstand of at least 67 meters asl or, more likely, an older (MIS 8 or earlier) highstand that is poorly preserved and still undated in the valley.
      As part of our work on the west-side fans, we also dated an older phase of alluvial-fan deposits from the Trail Canyon fan complex, which is north of Hanaupah Canyon. A 36Cl depth-profile age of 170 ka suggests alluvial deposition of unit Qaio (older phase of Qao) took place prior to the MIS 6 highstand of Lake Manly.
      Knowing the absolute ages (or range in ages) of the intermediate-age (Qai) surfaces in Death Valley allows us to estimate the following rates of geologic processes: (1) a lateral slip rate of 5 millimeters per year for the northern Death Valley fault zone; (2) uplift of 50 meters in roughly the past 80,000 years for parts of the Mustard Canyon hills in east-central Death Valley; and (3) an estimated 10–40 m of dip-slip thrust movement on the Echo Canyon fault in Furnace Creek Canyon.

Version 1.0

Posted August 2008

    Appendix 9
  • PDF (435 kB)
  • XLS (350 kB)
  • Summary of terrestrial-cosmogenic nuclide depth-profile data for sampled Death Valley alluvial fans.

Suggested citation:

Machette, Michael N., Slate, Janet L., and Phillips, Fred M., 2008, Terrestrial Cosmogenic-Nuclide Dating of Alluvial Fans in Death Valley, California: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1755, 45 p.




Quaternary Geologic Setting

Quaternary Faulting

Quaternary Stratigraphy and Soils

Previous Numerical Age Control


Geologic and Geomorphic Mapping

Cosmogenic Nuclide Dating

Sampling Sites

Sample Processing

Parameters Used in Modeling 36Cl Depth-Profile Age Estimates

Sampling Thickness

Grain-Size Distribution

Bulk Density

Profile Age Computation

Pedological Considerations in Profile Sampling and Analysis

Modeling of Profile Age and Uncertainties

Implications of Results for Cosmogenic-Nuclide Profile Dating Methodology

Stratigraphic and Chronologic Interpretations

Implications for Lake Manly

Lake Manly

Former Lake Levels

Rates of Fault Slip and Uplift

Offset Along the Northern Death Valley Fault Zone

Uplift of the Mustard Canyon Hills, North of Furnace Creek Ranch

Thrusting Along the Echo Canyon Fault, Furnace Creek Canyon



References Cited


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