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Pleistocene glaciation of the Jackson Hole area, Wyoming

January 24, 2018

Pleistocene glaciations and late Cenozoic offset on the Teton fault have played central roles in shaping the scenic landscapes of the Teton Range and Jackson Hole area in Wyoming. The Teton Range harbored a system of mountain-valley glaciers that produced the striking geomorphic features in these mountains. However, the comparatively much larger southern sector of the Greater Yellowstone glacial system (GYGS) is responsible for creating the more expansive glacial landforms and deposits that dominate Jackson Hole. The glacial history is also inextricably associated with the Yellowstone hotspot, which caused two conditions that have fostered extensive glaciation: (1) uplift and consequent cold temperatures in greater Yellowstone; and (2) the lowland track of the hotspot (eastern Snake River Plain) that funneled moisture to the Yellowstone Plateau and the Yellowstone Crescent of High Terrain (YCHT).

The penultimate (Bull Lake) glaciation filled all of Jackson Hole with glacial ice. Granitic boulders on moraines beyond the south end of Jackson Hole have cosmogenic 10Be exposure ages of ~150 thousand years ago (ka) and correlate with Marine Isotope Stage 6. A thick loess mantle subdues the topography of Bull Lake moraines and caps Bull Lake outwash terraces with a reddish buried soil near the base of the loess having a Bk horizon that extends down into the outwash gravel. The Bull Lake glaciation of Jackson Hole extended 48 kilometers (km) farther south than the Pinedale, representing the largest separation of these two glacial positions in the Western United States. The Bull Lake is also more extensive than the Pinedale on the west (22 km) and southwest (23 km) margins of the GYGS but not on the north and east. This pattern is explained by uplift and subsidence on the leading and trailing “bow-wave” of the YCHT, respectively.

During the last (Pinedale) glaciation, mountain-valley glaciers of the Teton Range extended to the western edge of Jackson Hole and built bouldery moraines that commonly enclose lakes. On the southern margin of the GYGS, prominent glacial outwash terraces define three phases of the Pinedale glaciation in Jackson Hole: Pinedale-1 (Pd-1) by Antelope Flats with subdued channel patterns on the east side of Jackson Hole; Pinedale-2 (Pd-2) by a large outwash fan that includes Baseline Flat on the west side of Jackson Hole with well-defined channel patterns; and Pinedale-3 (Pd-3) by The Potholes and other outwash fans farther up the Snake River in central Jackson Hole. During Pinedale glaciation, three glacial lobes of the GYGS fed into Jackson Hole, and the relative importance of these lobes changed dramatically through time. During the Pd-1 glaciation, the eastern Buffalo Fork lobe dominated whereas in Pd-2 and Pd-3 time the northern Snake River lobe dominated. This is consistent with migration of the GYGS center of ice mass westward and southward as glaciers built up towards the moisture source provided by storms moving northeastward up the eastern Snake River Plain. The recession of the eastern Buffalo Fork lobe in Pd-2 and Pd-3 times is consistent with an enlarged ice mass on the Yellowstone Plateau that placed the eastern part of the GYGS in a precipitation or snow shadow.

In Pd-1 time, the Buffalo Fork lobe reached its maximum extent and was joined by the Pacific Creek lobe. This culmination may correlate with the ~21–18 ka ages of moraines in the Teton Range and nearby ranges. Three subdivisions of Pd-1 glaciation built moraines that are nearly or entirely covered by outwash almost 100 meters thick. In Pd-2 time, the Snake River lobe joined with the Pacific Creek lobe and built a large outwash fan south of the present-day Jackson Lake. Boulders on a moraine at the head of this fan are dated to 15.5 ± 0.5 ka. The relation between Teton glaciers and those of the GYGS is indicated by outwash from these Pd-2 moraines that partly buries outer Jenny Lake moraines dated to 15.2 ± 0.7 ka. East of the large outwash fan, Pd-2 ice advanced across the glacial-age Triangle X-2 lake sediments, perhaps in a surge. The Buffalo Fork lobe retreated more than 20 km up valley from its Pd-1 position and Pd-2 ice of the Snake River and Pacific Creek lobes advanced into the area previously occupied by the Buffalo Fork lobe. The Pd-3 position flanks the margin of Jackson Lake and represents a retreat to a stable position after the Pd-2 7-km advance that may have been a surge across the Triangle X-2 lake sediments. The Potholes and South Landing outwash fans were built in the area deglaciated by the retreat from Pd-2 to Pd-3 time. The Spalding Bay outwash fan continued to incise and a meltwater stream flowed just outside the Teton glacier that filled the present Jenny Lake and deposited the 14.4 ± 0.8 ka inner Jenny Lake moraines.

Glacial outwash terraces increase in slope toward their respective moraines of the GYGS and are complex in both north-south and east-west directions. The Pd-1 terrace slopes to the west where it is buried by the Pd-2 outwash. The post-depositional tilting of the Pd-1 outwash terrace is an order of magnitude smaller than the original westward depositional slope. The Pd-1, 2, and 3 terraces have a shingle-like geometry such that the highest terrace decreases in age down valley, and in southern Jackson Hole, the Pd-3 terrace is only 3–5 m above the Snake River.

In Pd-1 time the combined Buffalo Fork and Pacific Creek lobes scoured out four basins: (1) Emma Matilda Lake; (2) Two Ocean Lake; (3) a deep basin from lower Pacific Creek to beneath the Oxbows and Jackson Lake Dam; and (4) the largest basin from the lower Buffalo Fork to Deadmans Bar of the Snake River. These basins are largely filled with fine-grained sediment and are now marked by moist lowlands or lakes. In Pd-2 and Pd-3 time the Snake River lobe scoured the present 120-m deep Jackson Lake and possibly the 120-m deeper sediment-filled basin. Subglacial erosion of the Jackson Lake basin by confined water jets is supported by eskers that climb up to the head of the South Landing outwash fan.


Publication Year 2018
Title Pleistocene glaciation of the Jackson Hole area, Wyoming
DOI 10.3133/pp1835
Authors Kenneth L. Pierce, Joseph M. Licciardi, John M. Good, Cheryl Jaworowski
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Professional Paper
Series Number 1835
Index ID pp1835
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Geosciences and Environmental Change Science Center