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.
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