Deglaciation of the Colorado Rocky Mountains following the Last Glacial Maximum


  • E.M. Leonard Department of Geology Colorado College
  • B.J.B. Laabs Department of Geosciences, North Dakota State University
  • A.D. Schweinsberg Department of Geology, University at Buffalo
  • C.M. Russell Department of Geology, Colorado College
  • J.P. Briner Department of Geology, University at Buffalo
  • N.E. Young Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University



Last Glacial Maximum, Deglaciation, Colorado, Rocky Mountains, CRN surface-exposure dating


The availability of almost 180 cosmogenic-radionuclide (CRN) surface-exposure ages from moraine boulders and glacially polished bedrock surfaces makes possible an assessment of the timing and character of the local Last Glacial Maximum (LLGM) and subsequent deglaciation in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. A review of glacial chronologies and numerical modeling results indicates that although glaciers across Colorado responded broadly synchronously, apparent differences in the timing and magnitude of glacier retreat following the LLGM suggest that spatially variable regional forcing, possibly precipitation related, played a role in glacier behavior along with more spatially uniform hemispheric or global forcing. Glaciers in the five ranges examined reached their greatest LLGM extents before ~19.5 ka and abandoned their outermost LLGM moraines between ~23.5 and 19.5 ka. Detailed deglaciation chronologies are available for glaciers in four of the ranges. In the Sawatch Range and Sangre de Cristo Mountains, glaciers were near their LLGM extents at 17-16 ka, before retreating rapidly. In the San Juan Mountains and the Front Range, glaciers may have begun their post-LLGM recession earlier, although early deglaciation is indicated by only a few ages on polished bedrock that potentially contains pre-LLGM CRN inheritance, and thus may be too old. Regardless of the timing of the onset of deglaciation, the equilibrium-line rise associated with deglaciation was earlier and significantly larger in the San Juan Mountains than elsewhere in Colorado. This suggests that the San Juan Mountains, located well to the southwest of the other ranges, may have experienced enhanced precipitation during the LLGM, as did areas farther to the south and west, while LLGM conditions may have been drier in the northern and eastern Colorado ranges. A breakdown in this pattern after the LLGM, with precipitation decreasing in the south and west and increasing in the north and east, may have led to the range-to-range differences evident across Colorado. Deglaciation was nearly complete in all four ranges by 15-13 ka. While some proxy records indicate a later Younger Dryas-age cooling in the Colorado mountains, there is not clear moraine evidence of glacier readvance at that time.


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Author Biography

E.M. Leonard, Department of Geology Colorado College

Professor of Geology


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How to Cite

Leonard E, Laabs B, Schweinsberg A, Russell C, Briner J, Young N. Deglaciation of the Colorado Rocky Mountains following the Last Glacial Maximum. CIG [Internet]. 2017 Sep. 15 [cited 2024 Mar. 4];43(2):497-526. Available from: