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Origin of the late quaternary dune fields of northeastern Colorado

January 1, 1996

Stabilized eolian deposits, mostly parabolic dunes and sand sheets, cover much of the landscape of northeastern Colorado and adjacent parts of southwestern Nebraska in four geographically distinct dune fields. Stratigraphic and soil-geomorphic relations and accelerator radiocarbon dating indicate that at least three episodes of eolian sand movement occurred between 27 ka and 11 ka, possibly between 11 ka and 4 ka, and within the past 1.5 ka. Thus, eolian sand deposition took place under both glacial and interglacial climatic conditions. In the youngest episodes of eolian sand movement, Holocene parabolic dunes partially buried Pleistocene sand sheet deposits.

Late Holocene sands in the Fort Morgan and Wray dune fields, to the south of the South Platte River, have trace element ratios that are indistinguishable from modern South Platte River sands, but different from Ogallala Formation bedrock, which has previously been cited as the main source of dune sand on the Great Plains. Sands in the Greeley dune field, to the north of the South Platte River, have trace element concentrations that indicate a probable Laramie Formation source. Measurements of parabolic dunes indicate paleowinds from the northwest in all dune fields, in good agreement with resultant drift directions calculated for nearby weather stations. Thus, paleowinds were probably not significantly different from present-day winds, and are consistent with a South Platte River source for the Fort Morgan and Wray dune fields, and a Laramie Formation source for the Greeley dune field. Sand accumulated downwind of the South Platte River to form the Fort Morgan duen field. In addition, sand was also transported farther downwind over the upland formed by the calcrete caprock of the Ogallala Formation, and deposited in the lee of the upland on the southeast side. Because of high wind energy, the upland itself served as a zone of sand transport, but little or no sand accumulation took place on this surface.

These studies, which demonstrate the importance of fluvial-source sediments for dune fields in Colorado, may be applicable to other dune fields in North America. Because modern drift potentials in northeastern Colorado are among the highest in the world, the present stability of dunes in the region may be in part a function of the dunes being supply-limited rather than solely transport-limited. Extensive (∼ 7700 km2) late Holocene dunes document that eolian sand in northeastern Colorado is very sensitive to small changes in climate or fluvial source conditions.

    Publication Year 1996
    Title Origin of the late quaternary dune fields of northeastern Colorado
    DOI 10.1016/0169-555X(95)00100-J
    Authors D.R. Muhs, T.W. Stafford, S.D. Cowherd, S. A. Mahan, R. Kihl, P.B. Maat, C. A. Bush, J. Nehring
    Publication Type Article
    Publication Subtype Journal Article
    Series Title Geomorphology
    Index ID 70018961
    Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse