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Desert wetlands—Archives of a wetter past

December 16, 2015

Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) are finding evidence of a much wetter past in the deserts of the American Southwest using a most unlikely source—wetlands. Wetlands form in arid environments where water tables approach or breach the ground surface. Often thought of as stagnant and unchanging, new evidence suggests that springs and wetlands responded dynamically to past episodes of abrupt climate change. Multiple cycles of deposition, erosion, and soil formation show that wetlands in the southwestern United States expanded and contracted many times during the past 35,000 years or so, before disappearing altogether as the last glacial period came to a close. USGS scientists are now studying the deposits to determine how closely conditions in the desert were tied to regional and global climate patterns in the past, and what it might mean for the fragile ecosystems in light of anticipated climate change in the future.