Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in Quaternary Science Reviews 29:3–4 (February 2010), pp. 554–566; doi: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2009.11.003 Copyright © 2009 Elsevier Ltd. Used by permission.


The Great Plains of the central United States contain numerous presently stabilized dune fields that were active during the late Holocene. The most recent period of reactivation occurred about 700–1000 years ago during the Medieval Climatic Anomaly, a period of frequent, severe drought recognized throughout the North American West. Dune orientations and internal bedding preserve information about paleowinds from this time period. We compared paleowind information with modern winds and potential sand transport analyzed from meteorological data. While both reconstructed paleowinds and modern winds include a strong northwesterly component over the northern to central portions of the Great Plains, a significant difference exists to the south. During the late Holocene, southwesterly winds had a strong influence on dune forms over the central and southern Great Plains, while modern potential sand transport is dominated by southerly to southeasterly winds that bring moisture to the region from the Gulf of Mexico. Hypothetical dune types forming under modern winds would be different and have different crestal orientations than those preserved from the late Holocene. In order for such a shift in southerly winds to take place it is likely that: 1) the typical position of the Bermuda High in summer was shifted either to the east or to the south resulting in weaker low-level winds from the south and southeast and greater extent of southwesterly winds on the Great Plains, and/or 2) drought, likely enhanced by evapotranspiration and soil moisture feedbacks, brought the normally higher-level southwesterly flow down to the land surface. Given our understanding of megadroughts over the Great Plains as well as recent climate predictions for increased warmth and drought over this area, future reactivation of the dunes seems likely.