Depositional processes and the inferred history of ice-margin retreat associated with the deglaciation of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet: The sedimentary record from Flathead Lake, northwest Montana, USA

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A series of piston cores from Flathead Lake, Montana, USA and a new radiocarbon date from the sedimentary record provide the basis for describing sedimentary processes related to deglaciation of the Flathead Lobe of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet and for interpreting the retreat history of the lobe. The oldest part of Flathead Lake sediment core records is Late Pleistocene in age and consists of cm-scale rhythmites of silt and clay, interpreted here as annual varves. Each varve contains a light-colored coarser-grained portion, inferred to represent deposition during peak annual runoff, and a darker-colored finer-grained portion interpreted to represent sediment accumulation during seasonal low-flow conditions. The coarser-grained portions, especially in the stratigraphically older sections of each core, contain sedimentary structures that reflect traction transport. Based on these sedimentary structures, their facies characteristics, and their spatial distribution within the lake, we interpret the thicker, light-colored portion of each varve to be deposited by hyperpycnal flows caused by seasonal melt events rather than more classic turbidity currents. Immediately overlying Late Pleistocene rhythmites in all Flathead Lake cores is a unique, significantly coarser-grained dm-scale silt bed with a median grain size up to 50μm. This silt bed has a sharp, locally erosional base and fines upward but does not contain any other sedimentary structures. In contrast to the rhythmites, we interpret this silt bed to represent a single, short-lived catastrophic sedimentation event generated by a large glacial outburst flood. Overlying this distinct bed are several other cm-scale beds of mainly silt that exhibit a basal upward-coarsening followed by an upward-fining median grain size profile. We interpret these beds and their grain size trends as reflecting the rising and falling hydrograph limbs of outburst floods derived from more distal sources located in the upstream parts of the upper Flathead watershed. The sediment record from Flathead Lake, together with results from geologic and geomorphologic 1:24,000 scale mapping around the lake margins, provide a series of constraints regarding the paleogeographic evolution of the area during deglaciation. Overall upward-thinning and upward-fining of the varved portion of the sediment core records reflects northward retreat of the southern Flathead Lobe ice margin starting at latest 14,475±150 cal yr BP, the depositional age of the oldest varve in any of our cores. The depositional age of silt beds overlying the varved records is constrained as between 14,150±150 cal yr BP and 13,180±120 cal yr BP. Within the available chronostratigraphic constraints, the outburst floods interpreted to have delivered this silt to the Flathead Lake basin also downcut a bedrock nick point below the Flathead Lake outlet, oriented a series of large boulders downstream, and deposited a series of large flood bars on the lower Flathead River floodplain.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)61-74
Number of pages14
JournalSedimentary Geology
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Jan 2010


  • Cordilleran Ice Sheet
  • Deglaciation history
  • Event beds
  • Flathead Lake
  • Glacial outburst floods
  • Hyperpycnal flows
  • Late Pleistocene
  • Pro-glacial lake
  • Turbidites


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