Steponaitis, Andrews: Stalagmites pinpoint drying of American West

August 3, 2015


Researchers from MIT, David McGee and graduate students Elena Steponaitis and Alexandra Andrews and elsewhere have now determined that the western U.S. — a region including Nevada, Utah, Oregon, and parts of California — was a rather damp setting until approximately 8,200 years ago, when the region began to dry out, eventually assuming the arid environments we see today.

The team identified this climatic turning point after analyzing stalagmites from a cave in Great Basin National Park in Nevada. Stalagmites are pillars of deposited cave drippings that form over hundreds of thousands of years, as water slowly seeps down through the ground, and into caves. A stalagmite’s layers are essentially a record of a region’s moisture over time.

The researchers used a dating technique to determine the ages of certain layers within two stalagmites, then analyzed these layers for chemical signatures of moisture. They dated stalagmite layers ranging from 4,000 to 16,000 years old, observing that moisture content appears to drop dramatically in samples that are less than 8,200 years old. Read the full story at MIT News

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