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A chain of east-west elongated lakes fringes the eastern flank of the Andes Mountains between 39 and 52°S in southern Chile and Argentina. These deep lakes fill valleys left by the retreat of outlet glaciers of the Patagonian Icefield about 16000 years ago. Two of the lakes, Lago General Carrera/Buenos Aires and Lago Cochrane, represent the shrunken remnants of a much larger lake (called here the predecessor lake) that developed in a moat alongside the icefield.

A series of seven stepped lacustrine braid deltas on the southeastern shore of Lago General Carrera/Buenos Aires mark the progressive, punctuated drainage of the predecessor lake. The deltas were formed by the build-out of fans of sand and gravel into the lake. They have the form of Gilbert deltas, with virtually flat subaerial topset beds and steeply inclined subaqueous foreset beds. The exposed delta fronts are marked by a series of small terraces produced by wave erosion during falling lake levels. On either side of the fans are embayments with beaches formed by deposition in the lee of the pro-grading fans. These embayments are filled with ridges of well-sorted gravel deposited by wave-driven long-shore drift.

About 13 000 years ago the regional drainage underwent a remarkable change. Rivers flowing eastwards into the Atlantic reversed their direction to flow westwards through the Andes Mountains and into the Pacific Ocean. The watershed moved some 200 km to the east. The cause of this change, and the falling lake levels, was melting of the Patagonian Icefield. As the ice retreated the icefield split into north and south components. This broke the ice dam that impounded the western end of the predecessor lake. The stepped, progressive fall of the lake level suggests that as the ice melted a series of lower overflow sills of hard rock were exposed. Each of the major episodes of sudden drop in lake level was followed by a long period of up to thousands of years when lake level remained constant. Terraces on the delta fronts indicate that each major episode of fall in the lake level was punctuated by up to ten minor episodes possibly representing major storm events or annual cycles of freezing and melting, blocking the overflow sills.
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Keywords: Chile; Southern Andes; ice dammed glacial lake; punctuated lake drainage; quaternary

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Natural and Social Sciences, University of Gloucestershire, Cheltenham, UK

Publication date: 2008-03-01

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