Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Atmospheric circulation during Holocene lake stands in the Mojave Desert: evidence of regional climate change


IT is commonly thought that the climate conditions that supported lakes over a period of years in the Mojave Desert in southern California, only existed before 8,000 yr BP and that the environment has been arid since1,2. Here we look at a drill core in the Silver Lake playa at the terminus of the Mojave River and find Holocene lake deposits which indicate that shallow lakes existed for at least a few decades. These deposits were radiocarbon dated at 3620 ±70 and 390 ± 90 yr BP, corresponding to the early Neo-glacial and the 'little ice age' respectively3. To identify the conditions necessary to produce these Holocene lake events we have examined the modern climate and hydrological patterns that produce ephemeral lakes in this usually arid watershed. Available data indicate that there is a link between anomalous winter atmospheric conditions over the North Pacific and Mojave River floods that produced ephemeral lakes in the Silver Lake playa and that the Mojave River filters out small to medium floods and allows only the extreme floods to reach the terminal playa and leave a record of the anomalous conditions. We suggest that the late Holocene lakes may have resulted from persistent similar atmospheric circulation patterns and winter floods.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1

    Smith, G. I. & Street-Perrott, F. A. in The Late Pleistocene (ed. Porter, S. C.) 190–212 (University of Minnesota Press, 1983).

    Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Van Devender, T. R. et al. in The Geology of North America vol. K-3 (eds Ruddiman, W. F. & Wright, H. E.) 323–357 (Geological Society of America, Boulder, 1987).

    Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Wells, S. G. et al., Rep. 249 (New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute, Las Cruces, 1989).

  4. 4

    Thompson, G. D. Water Supply Paper 578 (United States Geological Survey, Washington, DC, 1929).

  5. 5

    Ore, H. T. & Warren, C. N. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 82, 2553–2562 (1971).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Wells, S. G. et al. Quat. Res. 27, 130–146 (1987).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Blaney, F. H. Am. geophys. Un. Trans. 38, 209–215 (1957).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Troxel, H. C. & Hofman, W. in Geology of Southern California (ed. Jahns, R. H.) Bull. 170 Ch. 5, 13–17 (California Division of Mines, San Francisco, 1954).

    Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Buono, A. & Lang, D. J. Open File Rep. 80–207 (United States Geological Survey, Menlo Park, 1980).

  10. 10

    United States Geological Survey, WATSTORE Peak Flow Files (United States Geological Survey, 1987).

  11. 11

    Wells, S. G. et al. Eos 68, 1270 (1987).

    Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    National Climatic Center, Hourly Precipitation Data vol. California (United States Department of Commerce, National Atmospheric and Oceanographic Administration, Asheville.

  13. 13

    Weather Bureau, Hydrometeorological Report 37 (United States Department of Commerce, Weather Bureau, Washington, DC, 1962).

  14. 14

    Trenberth, K. E. & Paolino, D. A. Mon. Weath. Rev. 108, 855–872 (1980).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Namias, J. CalCOFI Atlas No. 22 (Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, 1975).

  16. 16

    Klein, W. H. & Bloom, H. J. Mon. Weath. Rev. 115, 2118–2132 (1987).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Namias, J. Proc. 5th Annual Clim. Diagnostics, Workshop 35–50 (United States Department of Commerce, National Atmospheric and Oceanographic Administration, Asheville, 1980).

    Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Cayan, R. D. & Peterson, D. H. in Aspects of Climate Variability in the Pacific and Western Americas (ed. Peterson, D. H.) (American Geophysical Union, in the press).

  19. 19

    Wagner, J. A. Mon. Weath. Rev. 97, 351–358 (1969).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Bonner, W. et al. Rep. E-3270(N) (Department of Meteorology, University of California, Los Angeles, 1971).

  21. 21

    Namias, J. et al., J. Clim. 1, 682–703 (1988).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Michaelsen, J. & Haston, L. Final Rep.—Water Resources Center Project W-707 (Department of Geography, University of California, Santa Barbara, 1988).

  23. 23

    Schulman, E. Bull. (Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, University of Arizona, Tucson, 1947).

    Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Fritts, H. C., Lofgren, G. R. & Gordon, G. A. Quat. Res. 12, 18–46 (1979).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    LaMarche, V. C. Science 183, 1043–1048 (1974).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information



Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Enzel, Y., Cayan, D., Anderson, R. et al. Atmospheric circulation during Holocene lake stands in the Mojave Desert: evidence of regional climate change. Nature 341, 44–47 (1989).

Download citation

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing