|Very low-level photo across the salt flats of Badwater|
...And finally we reach the top of the stratigraphic column at Death Valley National Park (DEVA). For convenience, here are the links to Parts I, II, and III. A lot of geologists just love the most recent 23 or so million years of Death Valley geology. For one thing, it gives people fantastic fodder for arguments about when various events happened, their extent, and even the basic mechanisms. DEVA features not only the pull-apart tectonics of the Basin and Range, but also lateral movements on strike-slip faults. As a result, there are depositional basins of a wide range of sizes. Terminology is a bit of a nightmare. The Wiki page on Death Valley geology isn't bad, but its strat column isn't a patch on the glorious Cenozoic complexity lurking in the park.
The figure above is a simplification. Not only are a number of informal or very local units not included, but the numerous volcanic units that are found in multiple basins are omitted, and the whole thing is shot through with unconformities. You can get angular unconformities pretty quickly in an active tectonic setting.
|Manly Beacon in the Furnace Creek Formation. The tilt of the beds is evident. Forgive the quality of the picture; it's from a physical photo, January 2001.|
Here I must disclose a liability: because of the "950 references" thing, the "need to get this done in a timely fashion" thing, and the "paleontology focus" thing, I opted to leave the structural and tectonic arguments to the structural and tectonic geologists, giving the world one of the few discussions of Death Valley geology that doesn't spend much time on those topics. So, what about the other stuff?
As I mentioned last time, the basic Cenozoic pattern begins with conglomeratic deposits, representing alluvial fans forming in a young basin. As drainage became established, finer-grained deposits became common in the center of the basin. Often a playa lake or more permanent lake would form, fringed by the coarser deposits of the fans feeding into it. If a basin ceased to deepen, eventually it would fill with sediment. The lakes ranged from freshwater to hypersaline and otherwise unpleasant. Stromatolites grew in some of the lakes, while others hosted small fish (including distant relatives of the modern Death Valley pupfish) and freshwater invertebrates. We don't have much in the way of body fossils of land animals, but we do sometimes come across tracks of birds, carnivorans, horses, artiodactyls, and other animals in lakeshore rocks. Pollen fossils can be common in lake deposits, and are useful for reconstructing environments. Pollen and other microfossils are usually obtained by coring projects. More or less all of the formations in the schematic above include at least some part of this general pattern.
|The Artist Drive Formation, exposed at Artist's Palette, tinted by natural chemical reactions.|
The largest basin is Death Valley itself, which hosted the largest lake(s). When Minnesota was chilling, Death Valley was a swimming pool. We met Pleistocene Lake Manly a few posts ago, but go ahead and take another look (if for no other reason than the packrats). Although we sometimes think of the Pleistocene ice ages as one big blanket of ice that covered everything for eons on end, the ice sheets themselves were localized and geologically ephemeral, and when the big sheets did come south, they generally stayed north of the present locations of the Missouri and Ohio rivers. A smaller ice cap did become established in the Sierra Nevada, which helped prop up the flanking resident lakes for longer periods of time than Lake Manly, but the ranges of Death Valley did not have the proper combination of elevation and precipitation to spawn big ice caps, so the incarnations of Lake Manly are more reflections of periods of increased precipitation. (It just so happens that they coincide with major ice advances, probably because storm tracks were shunted south.) The name, incidentally, is for William Lewis Manly, not some tough-guy thing, although bailing out his pioneer party is certainly a worthy accomplishment. Fellow rescuer John Haney Rogers was posthumously rewarded with the less famous Lake Rogers, located in northern DEVA. Once considered another large lake, it's now thought to have been more of a persistent marsh or spring most of the time. Someone did find a mammoth or mastodon tusk there once, though, so it's got that going for it.
|Death Valley's floor. It does flood from time to time, giving a mini encore for Lake Manly.|
Volcanic activity was also common in and around the park, up to essentially the present. With the aid of modern geochemical and radioisotope analyses, we can use local and regional ash falls to correlate and date the myriad formations, which is quite helpful because most of them are sparsely fossiliferous (and those few fossils they do have aren't all that useful for dating).
|Ubehebe Crater. Q: What is a pirate's favorite volcanic feature? A: A maar|
Selected references and chart references:
Axelrod, D. I., and W. S. Ting. 1960. Late Pliocene floras east of the Sierra Nevada. University of California Publications in Geological Sciences 39(1):1–118.
Beratan, K. K., J. Hsieh, and B. Murray. 1999. Pliocene-Pleistocene stratigraphy and depositional environments, southern Confidence Hills, Death Valley, California. Pages 298–300 in L. A. Wright and B. W. Troxel, editors. Cenozoic basins of the Death Valley region. Geological Society of America. Boulder, Colorado. Special Paper 333.
Çemen, I., and L. A. Wright. 1988. Stratigraphy and chronology of the Artist Drive Formation, Furnace Creek basin, Death Valley, California. Pages 77–87 in J. L. Gregory and E. J. Baldwin, editors. Geology of the Death Valley region. South Coast Geological Society, Santa Ana, California. Annual Field Trip Guidebook 16.
Clements, T. 1973. Geological story of Death Valley. Death Valley ‘49ers, Palm Desert, California. Publication 1.
Cole, K. L., and R. H. Webb. 1985. Late Holocene vegetation changes in Greenwater Valley, Mojave Desert, California. Quaternary Research 23(2):227–235.
Drewes, H. 1963. Geology of the Funeral Peak Quadrangle, California, on the east flank of Death Valley. U.S. Geological Survey, Washington, D.C. Professional Paper 413.
Forester, R. M., T. K. Lowenstein, and R. J. Spencer. 2005. An ostracode based paleolimnologic and paleohydrologic history of Death Valley; 200 to 0 ka. Geological Society of America Bulletin 117(11–12):1379–1386.
Fridrich, C. J., R. A. Thompson, J. L. Slate, M. E. Berry, and M. N. Machette. 2012. Geologic map of the southern Funeral Mountains including nearby groundwater discharge sites in Death Valley National Park, California and Nevada. U.S. Geological Survey, Reston, Virginia. Scientific Investigations Map 3151. Scale 1:60,000.
Greene, R. C., and R. J. Fleck. 1997. Geology of the northern Black Mountains, Death Valley, California. U.S. Geological Survey, Reston, Virginia. Open-File Report 97-79.
Hall, W. E. 1971. Geology of the Panamint Butte Quadrangle, Inyo County, California. U.S. Geological Survey, Washington, D.C. Bulletin 1299.
Hopper, R. H. 1947. Geologic section from the Sierra Nevada to Death Valley, California. Geological Society of America Bulletin 58(5):393–432.
Hunt, C. B., and D. R. Mabey. 1966. Stratigraphy and structure, Death Valley, California. U.S. Geological Survey, Washington, D.C. Professional Paper 494-A.
Jayko, A. S., R. M. Forester, D. S. Kaufman, F. M. Phillips, J. C. Yount, J. McGeehin, and S. A. Mahan. 2008. Late Pleistocene lakes and wetlands, Panamint Valley, Inyo County, California. Pages 151–184 in M. C. Reheis, R. Hershler, and D. M. Miller, editors. Late Cenozoic drainage history of the southwestern Great Basin and lower Colorado River region; geologic and biotic perspectives. Geological Society of America, Boulder, Colorado. Special Paper 439.
Knott, J. R. 1999. Quaternary stratigraphy and geomorphology of Death Valley. Pages 90–96 in J. L. Slate, editor. Proceedings of conference on status of geologic research and mapping, Death Valley National Park. U.S. Geological Survey, Reston, Virginia. Open-File Report 99-153.
Knott, J. R., A. M. Sarna-Wojcicki, C. E. Meyer, J. C. Tinsley, III, S. G. Wells, and E. Wan. 1999. Late Cenozoic stratigraphy and tephrochronology of the western Black Mountains piedmont, Death Valley, California; implications for the tectonic development of Death Valley. Pages 345–366 in L. A. Wright and B. W. Troxel, editors. Cenozoic basins of the Death Valley region. Geological Society of America. Boulder, Colorado. Special Paper 333.
Knott, J. R., A. M. Sarna-Wojcicki, M. N. Machette, and R. E. Klinger. 2005. Upper Neogene stratigraphy and tectonics of Death Valley—a review. Earth-Science Reviews 73(1–4):245–270.
Knott, J. R., M. N. Machette, R. E. Klinger, A. M. Sarna-Wojcicki, J. C. Liddicoat, J. C. Tinsley, III, B. T. David, and V. M. Ebbs. 2008. Reconstructing late Pliocene to middle Pleistocene Death Valley lakes and river systems as a test of pupfish (Cyprinodontidae) dispersal hypotheses. Pages 1–26 in M. C. Reheis, R. Hershler, and D. M. Miller, editors. Late Cenozoic drainage history of the southwestern Great Basin and lower Colorado River region; geologic and biotic perspectives. Geological Society of America, Boulder, Colorado. Special Paper 439.
Knox, R. E. 1963. Cenozoic deposits of the Emigrant Canyon area, Panamint Range. Thesis. University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California.
Lowenstein, T. K. 2002. Pleistocene lakes and paleoclimates (0 to 200 ka) in Death Valley, California. Smithsonian Contributions to the Earth Sciences 33:109–120.
Lowenstein, T. K., J. Li, C. Brown, S. M. Roberts, T.-L. Ku, S. Luo, and W. Yang. 1999. 200 k.y. paleoclimate record from Death Valley salt core. Geology 27(1):3–6.
McAllister, J. F. 1974b. Geology of the Furnace Creek borate area, Death Valley, Inyo County, California. Pages 84–86 in Guidebook: Death Valley region, California and Nevada. Death Valley Publishing Co., Shoshone, California.
Miller, R. R. 1945. Four new species of fossil cyprinodont fishes from eastern California. Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences 35(10):315–321.
Miller, C. B., and L. A. Wright. 2002. Geology of Death Valley National Park. Kendall Hunt Publishing, Dubuque, Iowa.
Niemi, N. A. 2002. Extensional tectonics in the Basin and Range Province and the geology of the Grapevine Mountains, Death Valley region, California and Nevada. Dissertation. California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California.
Niemi, N. A. 2012. Geologic map of the central Grapevine Mountains, Inyo County, California, and Esmeralda and Nye counties, Nevada. Geological Society of America, Boulder, Colorado. Digital Map and Chart Series 12. Scale 1:48,000.
Niemi, N. A., B. P. Wernicke, R. J. Brady, J. B. Saleeby, and G. C. Dunne. 2001. Distribution and provenance of the middle Miocene Eagle Mountain Formation, and implications for regional kinematic analysis of the Basin and Range province. Geological Society of America Bulletin 113(4):419–442.
Noble, L. F. 1934. Rock formations of Death Valley, California. Science 80(2069):173–178.
Noble, L. F. 1941. Structural features of the Virgin Spring area, Death Valley, California. Geological Society of America Bulletin 52(7):941–1000.
Pitts, K. L. 1983. Pliocene lacustrine stromatolites of the Furnace Creek Formation, Death Valley, California. Thesis. University of California, Los Angeles, California.
Randall, R. G. 1975. Geology of the Salt Springs area, Death Valley, California, and its bearing on early Mesozoic regional tectonics. Thesis. San Jose State University, San Jose, California.
Renik, B., N. Christie-Blick, B. W. Troxel, L. A. Wright, and N. A. Niemi. 2008. Re-evaluation of the middle Miocene Eagle Mountain Formation and its significance as a piercing point for the interpretation of extreme extension across the Death Valley region, California, U.S.A. Journal of Sedimentary Research 78(3):199–219.
Ross, R. J., Jr., and J. F. McAllister. 1981. Steeply inclined stromatolite columns in upper Tertiary Furnace Creek Formation, Death Valley, California. Mountain Geologist 18(3):58–61.
Scrivner, P. J., and D. J. Bottjer. 1986. Neogene avian and mammalian tracks from Death Valley National Monument, California; their context, classification and preservation. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 57(4):285–331.
Sharp, R. P., and A. F. Glazner. 1997. Geology underfoot in Death Valley and Owens Valley. Mountain Press Publishing, Missoula, Montana.
Smith, F. A., D. L. Crawford, L. E. Harding, H. M. Lease, I. W. Murray, A. Raniszewski, and K. M. Youberg. 2009. A tale of two species; extirpation and range expansion during the late Quaternary in an extreme environment. Global and Planetary Change 65(3–4):122–133.
Snow, J. K. 1993. Tertiary strata of the Ubehebe Basin and northern Cottonwood Mountains, Death Valley region, Calif. Pages 7–11 in D. R. Sherrod and J. E. Nielson. Tertiary stratigraphy of highly extended terranes, California, Arizona, and Nevada. U.S. Geological Survey, Reston, Virginia. Bulletin 2053.
Snow, J. K., and D. R. Lux. 1999. Tectono-sequence stratigraphy of Tertiary rocks in the Cottonwood Mountains and northern Death Valley area, California and Nevada. Pages 17–64 in L. A. Wright and B. W. Troxel, editors. Cenozoic basins of the Death Valley region. Geological Society of America. Boulder, Colorado. Special Paper 333.
Snow, J. K., and C. White. 1990. Listric normal faulting and synorogenic sedimentation, northern Cottonwood Mountains, Death Valley region, California. Pages 413–445 in B. P. Wernicke, editor. Basin and Range extensional tectonics near latitude of Las Vegas, Nevada. Geological Society of America, Boulder, Colorado. Memoir 176.
Snow, J. K., B. P. Wernicke, B. C. Burchfiel, and K. V. Hodges. 1989. Day 8: Neogene extension between the Grapevine Mountains and Spring Mountains, California and Nevada. Pages 67–75 in B. P. Wernicke, J. K. Snow, G. J. Axen, B. C. Burchfiel, K. V. Hodges, J. D. Walker, and P. L. Guth, leaders. Sedimentation and tectonics in western North America: Volume 3, Extensional tectonics in the Basin and Range Province between the southern Sierra Nevada and the Colorado Plateau. Field trips for the 28th international geological congress. American Geophysics Union, Washington, D.C. Field Trip T138.
Tanner, L. H. 2000. Miocene-Pliocene lacustrine and marginal lacustrine sequences of the Furnace Creek Formation, Furnace Creek and central Death Valley basins, Death Valley region, U.S.A. Pages 481–489 in E. H. Gierlowski-Kordesch and K. R. Kelts, editors. Lake basins through space and time. American Association of Petroleum Geologists, Tulsa, Oklahoma. AAPG Studies in Geology 46.
Tanner, L. H. 2002. Borate formation in a perennial lacustrine setting; Miocene-Pliocene Furnace Creek Formation, Death Valley, California, USA. Sedimentary Geology 148(1–2):259–273.
Wells, P. V., and D. Woodcock. 1985. Full-glacial vegetation of Death Valley, California: Juniper woodland opening to yucca semidesert. Madroño 32:11–23.