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TitlePalliser's Triangle: reconstructing the 'central desert' of the southwestern Canadian prairies during the late 1850s
AuthorWolfe, S AORCID logo; Hugenholtz, C H; Lian, O B
SourceThe Holocene vol. 23, no. 5, 2013 p. 699-701,
Alt SeriesEarth Sciences Sector, Contribution Series 20120206
PublisherSAGE Publications
Mediapaper; on-line; digital
File formatpdf
ProvinceAlberta; Saskatchewan; Manitoba
NTS62E; 62F; 62K; 62L; 72E; 72F; 72G; 72H; 72I; 72J; 72K; 72L; 72M; 72N; 72O; 72P; 73B; 73C; 73D; 82H; 82I; 82P; 83A
AreaCanadian Prairies; Calgary; Saskatoon; Regina; Swift Current; Medicine Hat; Lethbridge
Lat/Long WENS-114.0000 -100.0000 53.0000 49.0000
Subjectssedimentology; Nature and Environment; eolian deposits; dunes; dunes, parabolic; depositional history; depositional environment; Palliser Triangle
Illustrationslocation maps; plots; tables; aerial photographs
ProgramClimate Change Geoscience
Released2013 02 15
AbstractBetween 1857 and 1860 the British North American Expedition, led by Captain John Palliser, explored and surveyed the Canadian Prairies primarily to establish its suitability for agriculture and settlement. Historical and paleoclimate records indicate the Expedition coincided with below normal precipitation, leading to the perception of an arid or semi-arid region that would 'forever be comparatively useless' for agriculture. Today, this part of the Canadian Prairies is known as the Palliser Triangle, and is Canada's productive dryland agricultural region. Here we present historic, geomorphologic, and chronometric evidence to reconstruct the landscape encountered by the Expedition. We contend that Palliser's perception of the region was strongly influenced by his experience travelling through active sand dunes in the Middle Sand Hills of southeastern Alberta. At present, the dunes are entirely stabilized by vegetation, in contrast to Palliser's report of 'miles of burning sand'. Archival aerial photographs and optical ages of near-surface samples are used to reconstruct the landscape encountered by the Expedition in the Middle Sand Hills. Optical ages of presently stabilized sand dunes date primarily to between ad 1850 and 1934, peaking in c. ad 1925, and are indicative of a dune field undergoing reduction in activity, prior to the onset of 20th century droughts. Ages of interdune sand sheets further attest to regional dune activity occurring at least since ad 1750, concurrent with activity in other southern Canadian Prairie dune fields. Collectively, this evidence supports observations by Palliser of severe travelling due to bare sand conditions in 1857-1859. These conditions and Palliser's inference of their extent influenced his perception of a 'central desert', thus delaying construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway along a southern route and postponing the westward colonization of Canada.

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