Temporal and geographic extent of the late Holocene dry period in the central Great Basin, USA

Scott Mensing, Wei Wang, David Rhode, Douglas J. Kennett, Adam Csank, David Hurst Thomas, Cedar Briem, Thomas K. Harper, Brendan J. Culleton, Richard J. George, John Southon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


We provide evidence from pollen and radiocarbon dating of wet meadow sediments for the presence of multi-centennial drought, termed the Late Holocene Dry Period (LHDP), in the central Great Basin between 3100 and 1800 cal yr BP. We examine four sites along a south to north transect between 39° N and 42° N latitude, spanning the boundary of the anti-phasing dipole pattern of precipitation associated with ENSO. The LHDP conforms to the dipole pattern but contains three different phases, an initial 900-year dry period, followed by 200 years of wetter climate and then another 200 years of extreme drought. The dipole boundary appears to have shifted to a new semi-stable position with each period. Between 3100 and 2200 cal yr BP, the boundary seems to conform to the 40° N parallel across central Nevada, and trending to 42° N in northwest Nevada. Between 2200 and 2000 cal yr BP the boundary shifted south of 40° N, when all sites predominantly record wet conditions. Between 2000 and 1800 cal yr BP the boundary shifts north to ∼41° N, representing the driest phase which was widespread across central Nevada. A review of lake levels, tree-rings, and submerged stumps suggest that the drought between 2000 and 1800 cal yr BP was of greater magnitude than that recorded during the MCA megadrought. We do not yet have sufficient information to establish a cause for megadroughts, however it is important to note that the climate system periodically locks into a pattern with a consistently northward shifted storm track that persists for multiple decades to centuries, bringing persistent drought to the American Southwest. Indigenous human societies adapted to severe droughts through a variety of responses, suggesting a pattern of resilience and mobility in response to recurring climate change across the Great Basin.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number107900
JournalQuaternary Science Reviews
StatePublished - Jan 15 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by National Science Foundation Award GSS-1636519.We thank Brian Day and Danielle Fujii-Doe of the Sheldon Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge, John Young of Potts Ranch, Jon Welker of the Gund Ranch Agricultural Experiment Station, and Tom and Patsy Tomera of Tomera Ranch for access and permission to obtain sediment cores and samples. We thank two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments that improved the manuscript. The Shoshone Paiute Tribes of Duck Valley graciously allowed permission to obtain sediment cores on their land and we are particularly grateful for the time and expertise of Christopher Cleveland in guiding us to potential core sites. The Barrick Gold Corporation provided permission to core at Willow Creek. Kristina Brady, Anders Noren and staff at the Continental Scientific Drilling Facility (formerly LacCore) assisted with initial core description, analysis and archiving. Theo Dingemans provided analysis with PAST and age model construction. Saxon Sharpe identified mollusks. Gregory Weisberg, Eric Heaton, Scotty Strachan, Anna Patterson Klimaszewski, Destany Sky Pete, Destiny Max, Jordan Palli, Carl Oldperson, Jonathan White, and the 2017 University of Utah-Sacramento State archaeological field school crew helped with core recovery. Laurie Eccles (Penn State University) and Weston McCool (University of Utah) kindly assisted with the radiocarbon work. Bryan Hockett and the US Bureau of Land Management - Nevada Office provided support of radiocarbon dating of O'Malley Shelter.

Funding Information:
This work was supported by National Science Foundation Award GSS-1636519 .

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 Elsevier Ltd


  • Drought
  • Great Basin
  • Holocene
  • Indigenous human societies
  • Late Holocene dry period
  • Micropaleontology
  • North America
  • Paleoclimatology
  • Pollen

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