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1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

Great Basin

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An area in the western Cordilleran region of the United States of America, about 200,000 sq. m. in extent, characterized by wholly interior drainage, a peculiar mountain system and extreme aridity. Its form is approximately that of an isosceles triangle, with the sharp angle extending into Lower California, W. of the Colorado river; the northern edge being formed by the divide of the drainage basin of the Columbia river, the eastern by that of the Colorado, the western by the central part of the Sierra Nevada crest, and by other high mountains. The N. boundary and much of the E. is not conspicuously uplifted, being plateau, rather than mountain. The W. half of Utah, the S.W. corner of Wyoming, the S.E. corner of Idaho, a large area in S.E. Oregon, much of S. California, a strip along the E. border of the last-named state, and almost the whole of Nevada are embraced within the limits of the Great Basin.

The Great Basin is not, as its name implies, a topographic cup. Its surface is of varied character, with many independent closed basins draining into lakes or "playas," none of which, however, has outlet to the sea. The mountain chains, which from their peculiar geologic character are known as of the "Basin Range type" (not exactly conterminous in distribution with the Basin), are echeloned in short ranges running from N. to S. Many of them are fault block mountains, the crust having been broken and the blocks tilted so that there is a steep face on one side and a gentle slope on the other. This is the Basin Range type of mountain. These mountains are among the most recent in the continent, and some of them, at least, are still growing. In numerous instances clear evidence of recent movements along the fault planes has been discovered; and frequent earthquakes testify with equal force to the present uplift of the mountain blocks. The valleys between the tilted mountain blocks are smooth and often trough-like, and are often the sites of shallow salt lakes or playas. By the rain wash and wind action detritus from the mountains is carried to these valley floors, raising their level, and often burying low mountain spurs, so as to cause neighbouring valleys to coalesce. The plateau "lowlands" in the centre of the Basin are approximately 5000 ft. in altitude. Southward the altitude falls, Death valley and Coahuila valley being in part below the level of the sea. The whole Basin is marked by three features of elevation - the Utah basin, the Nevada basin and, between them, the Nevada plateau.

Over the lowlands of the Basin, taken generally, there is an average precipitation of perhaps 6-7 in., while in the Oregon region it is twice as great, and in the southern parts even less. The mountains receive somewhat more. The annual evaporation from water surfaces is from 60 to 150 in. (60 to 80 on the Great Salt Lake). The reason for the arid climate differs in different sections. In the north it is due to the fact that the winds from the Pacific lose most of their moisture, especially in winter, on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada; in the south it is due to the fact that the region lies in a zone of calms, and light, variable winds. Precipitation is largely confined to local showers, often of such violence as to warrant the name "cloud bursts," commonly applied to the heavy down-pours of this desert region. It is these heavy rains, of brief duration, when great volumes of water rapidly run off from the barren slopes, that cause the deep channels, or arroyas, which cross the desert. Permanent streams are rare. Many mountains are quite without perennial streams, and some lack even springs. Few of the mountain creeks succeed in reaching the arid plains, and those that do quickly disappear by evaporation or by seepage into the gravels. In the N.W. there are many permanent lakes without outlet fed by the mountain streams; others, snow fed, occur among the Sierra Nevada; and some in the larger mountain masses of the middle region. Almost all are saline. The largest of all, Great Salt Lake, is maintained by the waters of the Wasatch and associated plateaus. No lakes occur south of Owens in the W. and Sevier in the E. (39°); evaporation below these limits is supreme. Most of the small closed basins, however, contain "playas," or alkali mud flats, that are overflowed when the tributary streams are supplied with storm water.

Save where irrigation has reclaimed small areas, the whole region is a vast desert, though locally only some of the interior plains are known as "deserts." Such are the Great Salt Lake and Carson deserts in the north, the Mohave and Colorado and Amargosa (Death Valley) deserts of the south-west. Straggling forests, mainly of conifers, characterize the high plateaus of central Utah. The lowlands and the lower mountains, especially southward, are generally treeless. Cottonwoods line the streams, salt-loving vegetation margins the bare playas, low bushes and scattered bunch-grass grow over the lowlands, especially in the north. Gray desert plants, notably cactuses and other thorny plants, partly replace in the south the bushes of the north. Except on the scattered oases, where irrigation from springs and mountain streams has reclaimed small patches, the desert is barren and forbidding in the extreme. There are broad plains covered with salt and alkali, and others supporting only scattered bunch grass, sage bush, cactus and other arid land plants. There are stony wastes, or alluvial fans, where mountain streams emerge upon the plains, in time of flood, bringing detritus in their torrential courses from the mountain canyons and depositing it along the mountain base. The barrenness extends into the mountains themselves, where there are bare rock cliffs, stony slopes and a general absence of vegetation. With increasing altitude vegetation becomes more varied and abundant, until the tree limit is reached; then follows a forest belt, which in the highest mountains is limited above by cold as it is below by aridity.

The successive explorations of B. L. E. Bonneville, J. C. Fremont and Howard Stansbury (1806-1863) furnished a general knowledge of the hydrographic features and geological lacustrine history of the Great Basin, and this knowledge was rounded out by the field work of the U.S. Geological Survey from 1879 to 1883, under the direction of Grove Karl Gilbert. The mountains are composed in great part of Paleozoic strata, often modified by vulcanism and greatly denuded and sculptured by wind and water erosion. The climate in late geologic time was very different from that which prevails to-day. In the Pleistocene period many large lakes were formed within the Great Basin; especially, by the fusion of small catchment basins, two great confluent bodies of water - Lake Lahontan (in the Nevada basin) and Lake Bonneville (in the Utah basin). The latter, the remnants of which are represented to-day by Great Salt, Sevier and Utah Lakes, had a drainage basin of some 54,000 sq. m. See G. K. Gilbert in Wheeler Survey, U.S. Geographical Survey West of the Hundredth Meridian, vol. iii.; Clarence King and others in the Report of the Fortieth Parallel Survey (U.S. Geol. Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel); G. K. Gilbert's Lake Bonneville (U.S. Geological Survey, Monographs, No. 1, 1890), also I. C. Russell's Lake Lahontan (Same, No. it, 1885), with references to other publications of the Survey. For reference to later geological literature, and discussion of the Basin Ranges, see J. E. Spurr, Bull. Geol. Soc. Amer. vol. 12, 1901, p. 217; and G. D. Louderback, same, vol. 15, 1904, p. 280; also general bibliographies issued by the U.S. Geol. Survey (e.g. Bull. 301, 372 and 409).

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Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Great Basin'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. 1910.

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