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Find Your Science at GSA
27 June 2011
GSA Release No. 11-38
Christa Stratton
Director of Education, Communication, & Outreach

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July 2011 GSA Today cover


Clinker geochronology, the first glacial maximum, and landscape evolution in the northern Rockies
Peter W. Reiners et al., Dept. of Geosciences, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona 85721, USA; doi: 10.1130/G107A.1, pages 49,

Boulder, CO, USA – July GSA TODAY science article authors Peter W. Reiners of the University of Arizona and colleagues have developed and successfully carried out a novel, extraordinary technique for learning how efficiently river channels cut and increase local topographic relief: They have used the exposure of “clinker” deposits in combination with highly refined dating techniques. Clinkers are baked coals; baking naturally occurs in shallow depths (tens of meters) and when the clinkers are exhumed during erosion and the development of topographic relief, they are resistant and the rate of exposure can be timed using the U-Th/He isotopic system found in zircons within the clinkers.

In this application, Reiners and colleagues determined aspects of the pace of recent evolution of Powder River Basin in northern Wyoming and southern Montana. Ages of in-situ clinkers range from as old as 1.1 million years to as young as 10,000 years, but most formed in one of the last three interglacial periods, reflecting either changes in fluvial downcutting caused by glacial-interglacial cycles or other climatic effects on rates of natural coal burning. Clinker deposits atop a broad terrace in the northern part of the Powder River Basin provide a maximum age of 2.6 plus or minus 0.2 million years for terrace formation. This corresponds to the onset of major Northern Hemisphere glaciation interpreted from marine records, suggesting that the terrace formed by lateral erosion of the landscape as rivers were overwhelmed with sediment during the earliest Plio-Pleistocene glacial episode. The overall correlation of clinker ages with elevation above local base level suggests generally increasing incision and topographic relief in the Basin over at least the last one million years, at rates of ~0.1-0.3 km/million years.

Peer-reviewed GSA TODAY articles are open access. Please discuss articles of interest with the authors before publishing stories on their work, and please make reference to GSA TODAY in articles published. Contact Christa Stratton for additional information or assistance.


GSA TODAY is The Geological Society of America's science and news magazine for members and other earth scientists. Refereed lead science articles present exciting new research or synthesize important issues in a format understandable to all in the earth science community. GSA Today also often features a refereed "Groundwork" article — tightly focused papers on issues of import to earth science policy, planning, funding, or education. All GSA Today articles are open access at