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Professional Paper 1782

Deglaciation and Postglacial Treeline Fluctuation in the Northern San Juan Mountains, Colorado

By Paul E. Carrara

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (4.1 MB)Abstract

The San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado contain numerous lakes and bogs at and above treeline. In June 1978, Lake Emma, a tarn above present-day treeline, was suddenly drained by the collapse of underground mine workings. This study was initiated because the draining exposed a well-preserved archive of subfossil coniferous wood fragments that provided a unique opportunity to further our understanding of the paleoclimatic history of this region.

These paleoclimatic studies—coniferous macrofossil identification in conjunction with radiocarbon dating, deuterium analysis of the dated conifer fragments, as well as pollen and fossil insect analyses—yielded new information regarding Holocene climate and accompanying treeline changes in the northern San Juan Mountains. This report synthesizes previously published reports by the author and other investigators, and unpublished information of the author bearing on late Pleistocene and Holocene treeline and climate in this region.

Retreat of the glacier that occupied the upper Animas River valley from its Pinedale terminal position began about 19.4±1.5 10Be thousands of years ago and was essentially complete by about 12.3±1.0 10Be thousands of years ago. Two sets of late Pleistocene cirque moraines were identified in the northern San Juan Mountains. The older set is widespread and probably correlates with the Younger Dryas (11,000–10,000 radiocarbon years before present; 12,800–11,500 calendar years). The younger set is found only in the Grenadier Range and represents remnant glacier ice lying in well-shaded niches in a mountain range undergoing rapid deglaciation. A snowbank at the northern base of this range appears to be fronted by a Little Ice Age moraine.

Soon after deglaciation the average July temperature is estimated to have been about 5°C cooler and timberline about 650 meters lower than at present. However, timberline (and treeline) responded rapidly to the postglacial warming and reached higher-than-present elevations by the early Holocene.

A comparison of recently obtained accelerator mass spectrometry radiocarbon ages of coniferous wood fragments from Lake Emma, previously dated by conventional radiocarbon methods during the 1980s, led to a slight modification of previously published ages of Holocene treeline fluctuations. As early as 9,200 radiocarbon years before present (about 10,400 calendar years) and probably to about 5,400 radiocarbon years before present (about 6,200 calendar years), treeline was at least 80 meters higher than at present (about 3,660 meters). Furthermore, a large conifer fragment with a complacent annual ring record suggests that timberline may have been at least 140 meters higher than present (about 3,600 meters) about 8,000 radiocarbon years before present (about 8,900 calendar years). These past elevations of treeline and timberline suggest that growing-season temperatures were at least 0.5°–0.9°C warmer than at present. Deuterium data from the Lake Emma wood samples suggests that the maximum average temperature change from about 9,000 to 5,400 radiocarbon years before present (about 10,150 to 6,200 calendar years) was about 4°C. Owing to these warmer temperatures the summer monsoon circulation, which currently brings a large part of the annual precipitation to the San Juan Mountains, probably was more intense during the early and middle Holocene than it is today.

Between about 5,400 and 3,500 radiocarbon years before present (about 6,200 and 3,770 calendar years) it appears that treeline was near its present-day limit. After 3,500 radiocarbon years before present (about 3,770 calendar years), evidence of treeline position is very sparse, suggesting that treeline lay at, or below, its present-day elevation. However, a spruce krummholz fragment from the Lake Emma site provided two radiocarbon ages of about 3,100 radiocarbon years before present (about 3,300 calendar years). It is not clear whether this wood fragment represents a short-lived climatic amelioration or whether it was from a unique individual that grew above the general treeline at that time.

Approximately 20 other studies at sites throughout western North America that have yielded records of conifer remains above present-day limits are presented in the appendix of this report. The results of many of these studies are similar to those obtained in this study and indicate a higher than present-day treeline during the early to middle Holocene.

Because this study is based on more than 100 radiocarbon ages, including 66 ages from 53 coniferous wood fragments from the Lake Emma site, as well as pollen and insect analysis and deuterium data from the wood fragments, this study represents one of the best-documented records of Holocene treeline fluctuations in North America.

First posted August 9, 2011

For additional information contact:
USGS Geology and Environmental Change Science Center
Box 25046, Mail Stop 980
Denver, CO 80225

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Suggested citation:

Carrara, P.E., 2011, Deglaciation and postglacial treeline fluctuation in the northern San Juan Mountains, Colorado: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1782, 48 p.




Glacial Geology of the San Juan Mountains

Postglacial Forestation and Holocene Treeline in the Northern San Juan Mountains



References Cited

Appendix A

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