Paleohydraulic reconstruction of the largest Glacial Lake Missoula draining(s)

Petteri Alho, Victor R. Baker, Larry N. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

46 Scopus citations


Glacial Lake Missoula (GLM) was the source of Earth's largest known peak flood discharges onto the Channeled Scabland, northwestern United States. The original studies of GLM were based on geomorphological mapping of lake sediments and shorelines. More recently, studies have emphasized the computational fluid dynamics of downstream megaflood routing and characteristics in the Channeled Scabland and adjacent areas. However, actual details of the lake-draining processes GLM have received little scientific attention. In this paper, we employ two-dimensional hydraulic modelling to understand the paleoflow conditions for different scenarios of draining GLM at its highest stands. Values are calculated for three GLM drainage hydrographs (2.6; 13; 17×106m3s-1) that previous studies had estimated for outlet flows. Consistent with regional mapping and with the original interpretation of fluvial geomorphology by other studies, the modelling shows that lake silt sequences in the gorges of GLM must postdate the most highly energetic outburst events from the lake. This is because the flows generated in the lake by megaflood outflows are sufficiently energetic to erode any accumulated silt deposits. In contrast, the gravels underlying the silts in these zones include boulder-sized clasts, large-scale cross stratification, and 70-100m-high bars forms, all of which indicate very high-energy flood flow conditions. The modelling also shows that the paleohydraulic conditions which developed in the lake basin during the largest megaflood outflows would be capable of accounting for the observed bedrock scour at Rainbow Lake Pass, various " high eddy deposits" (eddy bars of flood gravel) in gorges, and the " giant ripple marks" (subaqueous gravel dunes) that were classically described in the 1940s. Previous studies interpreted the glacial lake silt/rhythmites and related deposits, such as the Ninemile Section, as evidence for numerous fillings and drainings of GLM. Our modelling suggests that these inferred events must have been relatively low in energy and magnitude relative to the earlier outburst(s) that emplaced the flood gravels, subaqueous gravel dunes, and scabland-like erosion surfaces.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3067-3078
Number of pages12
JournalQuaternary Science Reviews
Issue number23-24
StatePublished - Nov 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Archaeology
  • Archaeology
  • Geology


Dive into the research topics of 'Paleohydraulic reconstruction of the largest Glacial Lake Missoula draining(s)'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this