USGS/CVO Logo, click to link to National USGS Website
USGS/Cascades Volcano Observatory, Vancouver, Washington

The Cordilleran Ice Sheet in
Washington, Idaho, and Montana

-- Richard B. Waitt, Jr., and Robert M. Thorson, 1983,
The Cordilleran Ice Sheet in Washington, Idaho, and Montana: IN: H.E. Wright, Jr., (ed.), 1983, Late-Quaternary Environments of the United States, Volume 1: The Late Pleistocene (Stephen C. Porter (ed.)): University of Minnesota Press, 407p., Chapter 3, p.53-70.


During the Fraser (Late Wisconsin) Glaciation, the Cordilleran ice sheet advanced southward from source areas in British Columbia and terminated in the United States between the Pacific Ocean and the Continental Divide. The ice sheet extended farthest along major south-trending valleys and lowlands that traverse the international boundary; it formed several composite lobes segregated by highlands and mountain ranges. Each lobe dammed sizable lakes that drained generally southward or westward along ice margins and across divides.


During the Fraser Glaciation the Cordilleran ice sheet occupied parts of the Fraser and Puget lowland and Strait of Juan de Fuca between about 18,000 and 13,000 B.P., after the maximum stand of nearby alpine glaciers. At its maximum extent about 14,500 to 14,000 years B.P., the ice-sheet surface sloped from about altitude 1,000 meters at the international boundary to between 0 and 300 meters at the ice terminus on the continental shelf and in the southern Puget lowland. Drainage from deglaciated alpine valleys in the Cascade Range and Olympic Mountains flowed southward along both ice margins and coalesced into meltwater streams that built broad outwash trains southward and westward to the Pacific Ocean. In the North Cascades Range, Cordilleran ice overrode high divides and inundated major drainage basins. The ice-sheet surface descended from above 2,600 meters near the international boundary to 270 meters in the Columbia River valley.

East of the Cascade Range, the Okanogan lobe extended southward as a broad lobe that dammed the Columbia River valley to form glacial Lake Columbia. The lake discharged along the course of the Grand Coulee, whose tandem gorges developed by recession of great cataracts beneath catastrophic floods from glacial Lake Missoula.

The Columbia River lobe dammed the Spokane valley to form a shallow glacial Lake Spokane. The Pend Oreille River sublobe, and eastern appendage of the Columbia River lobe, was less extensive than formerly inferred. The Priest River valley remained unglaciated except for a distributary of the Purcell Trench lobe that dammed the valley mouth.

The Purcell Trench lobe dammed the 2,000-cubic-kilometer glacial Lake Missoula, which successively discharged as huge jökulhlaups that flowed to Spokane along the Rathdrum valley and from upper Pend Oreille River valley. From Spokane the great floods swept across the Channeled Scabland and down the Columbia River valley.

The West Kootenai and East Kootenai glaciers flowed across a high-relief landscape, terminating within a general upland. The Flathead lobe was more extensive than formerly inferred. Both the Flathead lobe and nearby alpine glaciers reached near-maximum positions during high stands of Lake Missoula and thus during the maximum stand of the Purcell Trench lobe.

Topographic lows trending south from southern British Columbia fed each of the major lobes of the Cordilleran ice sheet east and west of the Cascade Range, but the secondary lobation of the ice margins was determined by the configuration of local valleys.

As the Puget lobe retreated northward, ice-marginal streams and proglacial lakes progressively expanded northward. Glacial Lake Russell drained southward during initial retreat; glacial Lake Bretz later drained northward. Calving into seawater, the Juan de Fuca lobe retreated rapidly and perhaps thereby caused the northwestern part of the Puget lobe to stagnate. Continued ice retreat permitted the sea to enter Puget Sound, and a glaciomarine interval ensued from 13,500 to 11,500 years B.P. Stillstands or readvances of the ice margin occurred during and near the end of the glaciomarine interval.

In the northeastern Cascade Range and Waterville Plateau, deglaciation occurred by progressive downwasting and backwasting of ice whose margins frequently stagnated. Most lobes east of the Cascade Range built one or more small recessional moraines. As ice tongues retreated, glacial Lakes Columbia and Missoula fell to successively lower levels as they grew northward behind retreating ice. At length the early lakes were succeeded by glacial Lakes Brewster, Clark, and Kootenay.

The apparent absence of the Glacier Peak layer-G tephra within the northern part of its projected fallout area along with the occurrence of several jökulhlaups from glacial Lake Missoula after the Mount St. Helens set-S airfall suggest that much of the glaciated terrain east of the Cascade Range remained glaciated until about 13,000 years ago. In the North Cascade Range, erratics transported by the ice sheet up valleys to cirque floors indicate that, as the ice sheet disappeared, alpine glaciers did not rejuvenate much below the limits of modern glaciers. Although ice lobes both east and west of the Cascade Range generally retreated from terminal positions to the international boundary during the interval 14,000 to 11,000 years B.P., the lobes were not exactly in phase with each other. Particular stillstands and retreats were influenced by local conditions such as topography or seawater that did not affect all lobes equally.

Return to:
[Report Menu] ...

CVO HomePage Volcanoes of the World Menu Mount St. Helens Menu Living With Volcanoes Menu Publications and Reports Menu Volcano Monitoring Menu Servers and Useful Sites Menu Volcano Hazards Menu Research and Projects Menu Educational Outreach Menu Hazards, Features, and Terminology Menu Maps and Graphics Menu CVO Photo Archives Menu Conversion Tables CVO Index - Search Our Site ButtonBar

URL for CVO HomePage is: <>
URL for this page is: <>
If you have questions or comments please contact: <>
07/08/02, Lyn Topinka