Research Article

Out of the Tropics: The Pacific, Great Basin Lakes, and Late Pleistocene Water Cycle in the Western United States

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Science  28 Sep 2012:
Vol. 337, Issue 6102, pp. 1629-1633
DOI: 10.1126/science.1218390

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The water cycle in the western United States changed dramatically over glacial cycles. In the past 20,000 years, higher precipitation caused desert lakes to form which have since dried out. Higher glacial precipitation has been hypothesized to result from a southward shift of Pacific winter storm tracks. We compared Pacific Ocean data to lake levels from the interior west and found that Great Basin lake high stands are older than coastal wet periods at the same latitude. Westerly storms were not the source of high precipitation. Instead, air masses from the tropical Pacific were transported northward, bringing more precipitation into the Great Basin when coastal California was still dry. The changing climate during the deglaciation altered precipitation source regions and strongly affected the regional water cycle.

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