Journal of Paleolimnology

, Volume 59, Issue 1, pp 39–57 | Cite as

Lower Pahranagat Lake: modern analogue for extensive carbonate deposition in paleolakes of the Late Oligocene to Miocene Rainbow Gardens and Horse Spring Formations

  • T. A. Hickson
  • K. M. Theissen
  • M. A. Lamb
  • J. Frahm
Original paper


Thick Oligocene-Miocene lacustrine limestones of the Lake Mead region in southern Nevada have few adequate modern analogues that can shed light on their origin. We contend that the Lower Pahranagat Lake (LPAH), a spring-fed, alkaline lake in east-central Nevada, provides such an analogue. Through sediment cores, sampling of the lake margin, and characterization of sediment physical and chemical properties, we show that the LPAH shares a number of lithofacies in common with the Late Oligocene to Early Miocene Rainbow Gardens (RGF) and Miocene Horse Spring Formations (HSF) in the Lake Mead area. These include: stratiform stromatolites, domal stromatolites, reed beds, and intermittently laminated and massive limestones. Oxygen and carbon isotopes from authigenic carbonates support our interpretation in that the LPAH values strongly overlap those of the Oligocene-Miocene units. As a result, we interpret the Oligocene-Miocene RGF and HSF lacustrine carbonates as having been deposited in restricted, alkaline lake basins with high salinity. These basins were not conducive to the ecological success of animals and other, large multicellular organisms and, instead, fostered the growth of significant microbial communities. Lake margins, particularly during RGF deposition, were inhabited by reedy plants and salt tolerant shore grass much as is encountered in the LPAH today. These lakes were likely sourced by springs, but were nonetheless highly evaporative. Some unique aspects of both the LPAH and the Lake Mead region Oligocene-Miocene strata may shed light on the rarity of thick lacustrine carbonates in the rock record. Both of these systems are underlain by thick, Paleozoic carbonate sequences that host the principal aquifers that feed the lakes.


Oligocene-Miocene Lacustrine carbonates Alkaline lakes Modern analogues Microbialites C and O stable isotopes 



Funding for this work was provided by the National Science Foundation grant EAR-0838340 to Lamb and Hickson at the University of St. Thomas and by the University of St. Thomas Young Scholars Grant Program for Frahm. University of St. Thomas students Connor Edwards, Nick Hermann and Crystal Pomerleau, as well as many students in our field methods course, made significant contributions to data collection and analysis, both in the field and in lab. Hickson would like to thank Elizabeth Gierlowski-Kordesch for invaluable discussions about lacustrine and palustrine carbonates. Thanks to the staff at the Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge for their help with field work logistics. We all give a hearty shout out to LacCore for all of their hard work at curating lake cores from around the world, answering our pesky questions, and providing world-class analytical services. This manuscript greatly benefitted from the comments of two anonymous reviewers and we thank them.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • T. A. Hickson
    • 1
  • K. M. Theissen
    • 1
  • M. A. Lamb
    • 1
  • J. Frahm
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of GeologyUniversity of St. ThomasSt. PaulUSA
  2. 2.Professional Service Industries Inc.EaganUSA

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