Desert pavements and associated rock varnish in the Mojave Desert: How old can they be?

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Desert pavements are common features of arid landscapes and have been widely used as a relative age indicator of the geomorphic surfaces upon which they are developed. In this study I examined the patterns of pavement development as a function of elevation in the Mojave Desert as well as the causes for the gradual disappearance of pavement at high elevations. Pavement density, as measured by percentage of pebble coverage, decreases systematically with elevation gain by ∼3% per 100 m, from 95% coverage below 500 m to less than 60% at 1700 m. Plants appear to be the main agent of pavement disruption; plant density decreases as pavement density increases. Burrowing by rodents and crusting by cryptobiota also disrupt pavement development at higher elevation. During the last glacial maximum, plant communities were displaced 1000-1400 m downward in the Mojave Desert. Pavements today generally do not survive above the blackbush (Coleogyne ramossisma)-sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) zone. Evidence from packrat middens shows that these and other plants typical of high elevations today grew as low as 300-400 m during the last glacial maximum. I suggest that during the last glacial maximum, desert pavements were confined to the lowest alluvial fans of Death Valley and adjoining low valleys. No alluvial desert pavements above ∼400 m in the region are older than the latest Pleistocene. By the same reasoning, desert varnish on desert pavements above 400 m may all be Holocene in age, except where developed on stable boulders.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)855-858
Number of pages4
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2002


  • Death Valley
  • Desert pavement
  • Mojave Desert
  • Packrats
  • Rock varnish

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geology


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