Synoptic reconstruction of a major ancient lake system: Eocene Green River Formation, western United States

Michael Elliot Smith, Alan R. Carroll, Brad S. Singer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

257 Scopus citations


Numerous 40Ar/39Ar experiments on sanidine and biotite from 22 ash beds and 3 volcaniclastic sand beds from the Greater Green River, Piceance Creek, and Uinta Basins of Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah constrain ∼8 m.y. of the Eocene Epoch. Multiple analyses were conducted per sample using laser fusion and incremental heating techniques to differentiate inheritance, 4OAr loss, and 39Ar recoil. When considered conjunction with existing radioisotopic ages and lithostratigraphy, biostratigraphy, and magnetostratigraphy, these new age determinations facilitate temporal correlation of linked Eocene lake basins in the Laramide Rocky Mountain region at a significantly increased level of precision. To compare our results to the geomagnetic polarity time scale and the regional volcanic record, the ages of Eocene magnetic anomalies C24 through C20 were recalibrated using seven 40Ar/39Ar ages. Overall, the ages obtained for this study are consistent with the isochroneity of North American land-mammal ages throughout the study area, and provide precise radioisotopic constraints on several important biostratigraphic boundaries. Applying these new ages, average sediment accumulation rates in the Greater Green River Basin, Wyoming, were approximately three times faster at the center of the basin versus its ramp-like northern margin during deposition of the underfilled Wilkins Peak Member. In contrast, sediment accumulation occurred faster at the edge of the basin during deposition of the balanced filled to overfilled Tipton and Laney Members. Sediment accumulation patterns thus reflect basin-center-focused accumulation rates when the basin was underfilled, and supply-limited accumulation when the basin was balanced filled to overfilled. Sediment accumulation in the Uinta Basin, at Indian Canyon, Utah, was relatively constant at ∼150 mm/k.y. during deposition of over 5 m.y. of both evaporative and fluctuating profundal facies, which likely reflects the basin-margin position of the measured section. The most rapid sediment accumulation for the entire system (>1 m/k.y.) occurred between 49.0 and 47.5 Ma, when volcaniclastic materials from the Absaroka and/or Challis volcanic fields entered the Green River Formation lakes from the north. Our new ages combined with existing paleomagnetic and biostratigraphic control permit the first detailed synoptic comparison of lacustrine depositional environments in all the Green River Formation basins. Coupled with previously published paleocurrent observations, our detailed correlations show that relatively freshwater lakes commonly drained into more saline downstream lakes. The overall character of Eocene lake deposits was therefore governed in part by the geomorphic evolution of drainage patterns in the surrounding Laramide landscape. Freshwater (overfilled) lakes were initially dominant (53.5-52.0 Ma), possibly related to high erosion rates of remnant Cretaceous strata on adjacent upfifts. Expansion of balanced-fill lakes first occurred in all Green River Formation basins at 52.0-51.3 Ma and again between 49.6 and 48.5 Ma. Evaporative (underfilled) lakes occurred in various basins between 51.3 and 45.1 Ma, coincident with the end of the early Eocene climatic optima and subsequent onset of global cooling defined from marine record. However, evaporite intervals in the different depocenters were deposited at different times rather than being confined to a single episode of arid climate. Evaporative terminal sinks were initially located in the Greater Green River and Piceance Creek Basins (51-1-48.9 Ma), then gradually migrated southward to the Uinta Basin (47.145.2 Ma). This history is likely related to progressive southward construction of the Absaroka Volcanic Province, which constituted a major topographic and thermal anomaly that contributed to a regional north to south hydrologic gradient. The Greater Green River and Piceance Creek Basins were eventually filled from north to south with Absaroka-derived detritus at sedimentation rates 1-2 orders of magnitude greater than the underlying lake deposits.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)54-84
Number of pages31
JournalBulletin of the Geological Society of America
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Jan 2008
Externally publishedYes


  • Absaroka
  • Ar-Ar
  • Eocene
  • Green River Formation
  • Lake type
  • Land-mammal ages
  • Laramide
  • Piceance Creek Basin
  • Uinta Basin

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geology


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