Deglaciation of the North Cascade Range, Washington and British Columbia, from the Last Glacial Maximum to the Holocene


  • J.L. Riedel U.S. National Park Service



Pleistocene, deglaciation, ice age, North Cascades


Glacial retreat from the North Cascade Range after the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) at approximately 21 ka until the end of the Pleistocene at 11.6 ka was complex and included both continental and alpine glaciers. Alpine valley glaciers reached their maximum extent before 21.4 ka, then underwent a punctuated retreat to valley heads. In the south, beyond the reach of ice sheet glaciation, several end moraines were deposited after the LGM. Moraines marking a re-advance of alpine glaciers to <5 km below modern glaciers were deposited from 13.7 to 11.6 ka.

The Cordilleran Ice Sheet flowed south from near 52° north latitude in British Columbia into the North Cascades. At its maximum size the ice sheet covered more than 500 km2 and had a surface elevation of 2200 m in upper Skagit valley. Deglaciation commenced about 16 ka by frontal retreat of ice flanking the mountains. Surface lowering eventually exposed regional hydrologic divides and stranded ice masses more than 1000 m thick in valleys. Isolated fragments of the ice sheet disintegrated rapidly from 14.5 to 13.5 ka, with the pattern of deglaciation in each valley controlled by valley orientation, topography, and climate. Like alpine glaciers to the south, retreat of the ice sheet remnants was slowed by millennial scale climate fluctuations that produced at least one large recessional moraine, and multiple lateral moraines and kame terraces from elevations of 200-1400 m in most valleys. Large volumes of glacial meltwater flowed through the North Cascades and was concentrated in the Skagit and Methow rivers. Outburst floods from deep proglacial lakes spilled across divides and down steep canyons, depositing coarse gravel terraces and alluvial fans at valley junctions.

Climate at the LGM was characterized by a mean summer temperature 6 to 7 ºC cooler than today, and 40% lower mean annual precipitation. Persistence of this climate for thousands of years before the LGM caused a 750-1000 m decrease in alpine glacier equilibrium line altitudes (ELA). In the southern North Cascades at 16 ka, glacial ELAs were 500-700 m lower than today, and during advances from 13.7 to 11.6 ka alpine glacier ELAs were 200-400 m lower.


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How to Cite

Riedel J. Deglaciation of the North Cascade Range, Washington and British Columbia, from the Last Glacial Maximum to the Holocene. CIG [Internet]. 2017 Sep. 15 [cited 2024 Mar. 4];43(2):467-96. Available from: