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Windows into the EarthThe Geologic Story of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks$
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Robert B. Smith and Lee J. Siegel

Print publication date: 2000

Print ISBN-13: 9780195105964

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780195105964.001.0001

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Ice over Fire: Glaciers Carve the Landscape

Ice over Fire: Glaciers Carve the Landscape

6 Ice over Fire: Glaciers Carve the Landscape
Windows into the Earth

Robert B. Smith

Lee J. Siegel

Oxford University Press

Yellowstone, the Tetons, and Jackson Hole were shaped by multiple catastrophes. Huge volcanic eruptions and powerful earthquakes played major roles. Finishing touches were added by another kind of calamity: A rare global Ice Age produced gigantic glaciers that buried the landscape with ice two-thirds of a mile thick in places. The glaciers carved mountains, canyons, and lake basins. They dumped large piles of debris and redirected the flow of rivers. The Yellowstone—Teton region is a world-class example of how land was reshaped by glaciers during what is known as the Pleistocene Ice Age. The Ice Age was not a single glacial period, but many intermittent cold spells interspersed with warmer periods during which the ice melted. The timing of major glacial periods is notoriously uncertain. Although continental ice sheets did not quite reach as far south as Yellowstone, a regional icecap and large glaciers covered the Yellowstone—Teton country during three major episodes of at least the past 300,000 years—and perhaps the past 2 million years. The last of these big glaciers retreated about 14,000 years ago, although some argue they did not recede until 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Today, small glaciers in the Teton Range are found only above 10,000 feet. During each major episode, most of Yellowstone National Park was buried beneath an icecap as much as 3,500 feet thick, among the largest in the ancient Rocky Mountains. Gigantic masses of ice flowed down from the high Yellowstone Plateau, carving and scouring the Earth’s surface, diverting and damming rivers into their present forms, steepening mountain fronts, and deepening lakes. The ice helped sculpt the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. More than anything, the thick ice scraped Yellowstone’s volcanic topography, further smoothing the plateau and helping to excavate the basin occupied by Yellowstone Lake. Jackson Hole became a rendezvous of glaciers converging from the north, north-east, and west. Ice up to 2,000 feet thick scooped out the valley floor. The glaciers left tall ridges of rocky debris now covered by lush conifer forests. Such ridges, called moraines, helped shape Jackson Lake.

Keywords:   Alps, Cascade Canyon, Falling Ice Glacier, Grand Canyon, Himalayas, Jackson Lake, Lateral moraine, Mount Rainier, Obsidian, Pacific Creek

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