Paleohydrology of Andean saline lakes from sedimentological and isotopic records, Northwestern Argentina

Blas Valero-Garcés, Antonio Delgado-Huertas, Norma Ratto, Ana Navas, Larry Edwards

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

32 Scopus citations


The paleohydrological evolution of several high altitude, saline lakes located in the southernmost Altiplano (El Peinado and San Francisco basins, Catamarca province, NW Argentina) was reconstructed applying sedimentological, geochemical and isotopic techniques. Several playa lakes from the San Francisco basin (26 °56' S; 68°08' W, 3800-3900 m a.s.l.) show evidence of a recent raise in the watertable that led to modern deposition of carbonate and diatomaceous muds. A 2 m- long core from El Peinado Lake (26°29' 59'' S, 68°05' 32'' W, 3820 m a.s.1.) consists of calcitic crusts (unit 3), overlaid by an alternation of macrophyte-rich and travertine clast-rich, laminated muds (unit 2), and topped by travertine facies (unit 1). This sedimentary sequence illustrates a paleohydrological evolution from a subaerial exposure (unit 3) to a high lake stand (unit 2), and a subsequent smaller decrease in lake record also reflects the lake transgression between units 3 and 2. Although there is level (unit 1). The δ13 C(organic matter) a general positive correlation between δ18O(carbonate) and salinity proxies (Na, Li and B content), the large data dispersion indicates that other factors besides evaporation effects control chemical and isotopic composition of lakewater. Consequently, the oxygen isotopic composition cannot be interpreted exclusively as an indicator of salinity or evaporation ratio. The degassing of CO2 during groundwater discharge can explain the enriched δ13C values for primary carbonates precipitated. The carbon budget in these high altitude, saline lakes seems to be controlled by physical rather than biological processes. The Altiplano saline lakes contain records of environmental and climatic change, although accurate 14C dating of these lacustrine sediments is hindered by the scarcity of terrestrial organic material, and the large reservoir effects. Sedimentologic evidence, a 210Pb-based chronology, and a preliminary U/Th chronology indicate a very large reservoir effect in El Peinado, likely as a result of old groundwaters and large contributions of volcanic and geothermal 210C-free CO210 to the lake system. Alternative chronologies are needed to place these paleorecords in a reliable chronological framework. A period of increased water balance in the San Francisco basin ended at about 1660 ± 82 yr B.P. (calendar yr U/Th age), and would correlates with the humid phase between 3000 and 1800 yr B.P detected in other sites of the southern Altiplano. Both, 210Pb and preliminary U/Th dating favor a younger age for the paleohydrological changes in El Peinado. The arid period reflected by subaerial exposure and low lake levels in unit 3 would have ended with a large increase in effective moisture during the late 17th century. The increased lake level during deposition of unit 2 would represent the period between A.D. 1650-1900, synchronous to the Little Ice Age. This chronological framework is coherent with other regional records that show an abrupt transition from more arid to more humid conditions in the early 17th century, and a change to modern conditions in the late 19th century. Although there are local differences, the Little Ice Age stands as a significant climatic event in the Andean Altiplano.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)343-359
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Paleolimnology
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2000

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Financial support for field work was provided by the Universidad Nacional de Catamarca, Argentina, and by the Departamento de Relaciones Internacionales, CSIC, Spain. The logistic support of the Argentinian Gend-armeria Nacional, particularly the Destacamento de Gendarmeria Nacional in Las Grutas-Paso de San Francisco, are greatly appreciated. Without the help of the gendarmes and the participants in the Archeological Expedition, the coring expedition to El Peinado would not have been possible. Loren Hoppe was an invaluable field assistant. We thank Ramón Julià (Institut Jaume Almera – CSIC, Spain) and Dan Engstrom (University of Minnesota, USA) for U/Th and 210Pb analyses, respectively. We are grateful to Kerry Kelts (Limnological Research Center, University of Minnesota, USA) for inspiring conversations on South American paleorecords.


  • Altiplano
  • Holocen e
  • Little Ice Age
  • Mineralogy
  • Paleohydrology
  • Saline lakes
  • Sedimentology
  • Stable isotope


Dive into the research topics of 'Paleohydrology of Andean saline lakes from sedimentological and isotopic records, Northwestern Argentina'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this