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Examine the geomorphological evidence of former climatic conditions in arid environments and discuss its role in determining the characteristics of present day desert landscapes.

Examine the geomorphological evidence of former climatic conditions in arid environments and discuss its role in determining the characteristics of present day desert landscapes.

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Ireland) Competition by Victoria Ramsey. Originally submitted for BSc Geography at Queen University Belfast, with lecturer Patricia Warke in the category of Environmental and Geosciences
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Ireland) Competition by Victoria Ramsey. Originally submitted for BSc Geography at Queen University Belfast, with lecturer Patricia Warke in the category of Environmental and Geosciences

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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Examine the geomorphological evidence of former climatic conditions in aridenvironments and discuss its role in determining the characteristics of present daydesert landscapes.
 There is evidence to suggest that geomorphological landforms in contemporary desertenvironments may not have always formed under arid conditions. In addition, somelandforms have undergone extensive reworking during past climatic fluctuations to formwhat is seen in the present day landscape.
Goudie notes “the dive
rsity of desert landscapes is
greatly affected by their varied climatic histories” (2002, p18).
Desert environments are verysensitive to fluctuations in climate as they are essentially closed systems. Any change tomoisture input will greatly affect the desert region as it will have to adjust to increasing or
decreasing amounts of moisture. Hobbs describes desert environments as “self 
climate gauges” (as quoted in Goudie, 2002, p18).
The nature of these climatic changes canbe illustrated by different temporal and spatial scales. One long term control of aridity iscontinental drift during the past 65Ma has caused continents to pass through differentclimatic zones facilitating environmental processes different than those of present day. On aglobal but medium time scale,
changes to the Earth’s orbit produced the
glacials andinterglacials of the Pleistocene and more humid conditions of the Holocene (Goudie, 2002).Superimposed on these events are short-term, regional fluctuations in climate caused by, forexample, the fluctuations between El Niño and La Niña events or variations in monsoonintensity in more recent years. All of these drivers for climatic change account for thediversity of contemporary landforms found in desert environments and why some landformsoccur in some deserts and not others. This essay addresses the evidence left by these largeand small scale climatic changes to understand the complexity of the formation of desertlandforms and their impact on present day processes. Much evidence of past climaticconditions are found in alluvial fans, palaeo-lakes and rivers, duricrusts, karst formations anddunes.
Alluvial Fans
Evidence of Pleistocene transitions between glacial and interglacial periods is found inalluvial fans, especially those in Death Valley, California. A study by Dorn (1988)discovered three cycles of fan development in the alluvial fans of the Panamint bajada andthe Black Mountains region which were controlled by changes in the climate. The earliestcycle Q1 occurred between approximately 800,000BP and 500,000BP, the next cycle Q2developed between 170,000BP and 105,000BP, and the earliest cycle Q3 from around50,000BP to present. The first part of each cycle coincided with more humid conditions thantoday, while the end of each cycle occurred during major glacial to interglacial climatictransitions, followed by long periods of arid conditions (Dorn, 1988). The evidence of suchclimatic fluctuations was found through the study of microchemical laminations of rock varnish found on the sediment of the alluvial fans.
Dorn states, “the details of varnish
accumulation are important to understand...as a desert geomorphic tool to be able to decipher
climate change” (2009, p657).
Higher manganese to iron ratios indicate a less alkaline, more
humid environment as there would be less aeolian entrained alkaline sediment from the likesof Lake Manly. Lower manganese to iron ratios develop in more alkaline, arid conditionswhere alkaline particles can be frequently entrained by aeolian processes from playa andother such surfaces (Figure 1) (Dorn, 1988; 2009).
Figure 1.
Manganese : Iron Ratios from a Death Valley alluvial fan deposits illustrating climatic fluctuationsbetween layers. (Dorn, 1988).
Dorn (1988) also found deep fanhead entrenchments relating to the transition between theLast Glacial Maximum of the Pleistocene and the Holocene. A transition from more humidto more dry conditions results in the transportation of sediment from hill slopes to the lowerparts of the fan. In the hill slopes, as vegetation densities decrease, so too does infiltrationrates and more soil is susceptible to erosion by flood events. Combined with a drop in baselevels, this causes entrenchment of the fan head (Dorn, 1988). Another characteristic of climatically fluctuating alluvial fan deposition is the type of sediment. Holocene depositiontends to consist of coarser material than that of the late Pleistocene. Increased vegetationcover under more humid conditions limits hill slope runoff and stream power (Goudie, 2002).In arid environments today alluvial fans remain for most of the year inactive and may bemodified by aeolian processes, removing finer sediments. They may only be reactivatedfluvially by infrequent storm events associated with seasonal rainfall.
During the late Quaternary when more humid conditions prevailed, contemporary playas orclosed depressions, of middle and subtropical deserts held large lakes. Palaeoenvironmentalinformation of past climatic conditions can be recorded by shoreline features marked byerosional and depositional landforms and in sediment deposits (Sack, 2009). The bestexample of palaeo-lakes can be found in The Great Basin of South-west USA where duringthe Pleistocene it held around eighty lakes covering an area eleven times greater than today(Goudie, 2002). Blackwelder (1933) has studied the area of the palaeo-lake, Lake Manly inDeath Valley. The floor of the basin is hardened by a five foot thick salt deposit which runsfor about 45miles in length and is underlain by a layer of clay. Blackwelder (1933) suggests
that the clay represents the phases of lake expansion and the upper most bed of salt is fromthe last period of desiccation transforming the lake into a salt rich playa. Lake depositssuggest that they are of lacustrine origin. Twelve distinctive terraces can be found near thesouth end of Death Valley which show that the lake reached a height of 310m above sealevel, 90miles long and 6-11 miles wide (Blackwelder, 1933). Other palaeo-lakes in DeathValley showing similar features are Lake Bonneville and Lahonton. At Lake Lahonton tufadeposits from precipitated carbonates in more moist conditions have formed on rocks(Goudie, 2002).The southern boundary of the Sahara has expanded and contracted as much as 10º of latitudebetween late Pleistocene and early Holocene. During the early to mid Holocene moisturewas so abundant that essentially the Sahara did not exist. Evidence of this is found in thepalaeo-lake deposits and archaeological sites dated to around 8,000 years ago (Goudie, 2002).Mortars, grinders that have been found indicate grass coverage and bone hooks and harpoonssuggest lakes present which held fish. The Chad Basin is thought to have held a Mega Chadduring the Quaternary with lake levels 40m higher than today, covering an area of 82,000km²compared to a mere 2,500km² at present. Evidence for this lies in the lake stands within theChad Basin (Goudie, 2002).Other evidence of previous humid conditions can be found in the study of Oyo, a depressionin Sudan, thought to be a lost oasis of the Quaternary era. Radio-carbon dating of buriedpalms and pollen spectra from sediment cores show that this area would have beensurrounded by savannah vegetation between 8500years BP and 6000year BP (Goudie, 2002).Haynes (1989) who conducted a study on the area found the floor of the depression to becovered with two salt flats underlain with Holocene lake beds. Groundwater is at a veryshallow level producing sodium carbonate salt or
due to evaporation from thecapillary fringe which caravans of people mine on a seasonal basis as it re-grows (Haynes,1989, p193). Examples of other palaeo-lakes can be found in Lake Eyre, Australia, LakeMakgadikgodi in the Kalahari Desert and in the Atacama and Antiplano Deserts of SouthAmerica (Goudie, 2002).Today, lake beds have formed relatively flat surfaces which are salt rich with aeolianprocesses being the main form of sediment removal. They are important sites for transportnetworks across these vast arid regions. Some playas may now only hold water on anephemeral basis after a rainfall event but intensive evaporation causes them to dry outquickly.
 Associated with palaeo-lakes are relict river systems that may have been active during thesame humid periods. The Kuiseb River in the Namib Desert contains silt deposits stretching60km along the valley and reach 45m above the present day river bed. Radiocarbon andthermoluminescence dating suggest that these silts were formed during the more humidconditions of the Holocene between 10,000 and 6,000 years ago (Goudie, 2002). Anotherexample is the Gilf Kebir plateau in SW Egypt. During the Tertiary period when more humid

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