Lake Lahontan never had an outlet. The first chemical deposits to be made along its shores were deposits of travertine, in places eighty feet thick. Its floor is spread with fine clays, which must have been laid in deep, still water, and which are charged with the salts absorbed by them as the briny water of the lake dried away. These sedimentary clays are in two divisions, the upper and lower, each being about one hundred feet thick. They are separated by heavy deposits of well-rounded, cross-bedded gravels and sands, similar to those spread at the present time by the intermittent streams of arid regions. A similar record is shown in the old floors of Lake Bonneville. What conclusions do you draw from these facts as to the history of these ancient lakes?
In the river deposits which are left above sea level particles of waste are allowed to linger only for a time. From alluvial fans and flood plains they are constantly being taken up and swept farther on downstream. Although these land forms may long persist, the particles which compose them are ever changing. We may therefore think of the alluvial deposits of a valley as a stream of waste fed by the waste mantle as it creeps and washes down the valley sides, and slowly moving onwards to the sea.
In basins waste finds a longer rest, but sooner or later lakes and dry basins are drained or filled, and their deposits, if above sea level, resume their journey to their final goal. It is only when carried below the level of the sea that they are indefinitely preserved.
On reaching this terminus, rivers deliver their load to the ocean. In some cases the ocean is able to take it up by means of strong tidal and other currents, and to dispose of it in ways which we shall study later. But often the load is so large, or the tides are so weak, that much of the waste which the river brings in settles at its mouth, there building up a deposit called the delta, from the Greek letter of that name, whose shape it sometimes resembles.
Deltas and alluvial fans have many common characteristics. Both owe their origin to a sudden check in the velocity of the river, compelling a deposit of the load; both are triangular in outline, the apex pointing upstream; and both are traversed by distributaries which build up all parts in turn.
In a delta we may distinguish deposits of two distinct kinds,— the submarine and the subaerial. In part a delta is built of waste brought down by the river and redistributed and spread by waves and tides over the sea bottom adjacent to the river’s mouth. The origin of these deposits is recorded in the remains of marine animals and plants which they contain.
As the submarine delta grows near to the level of the sea the distributaries of the river cover it with subaerial deposits altogether similar to those of the flood plain, of which indeed the subaerial delta is the prolongation. Here extended deposits of peat may accumulate in swamps, and the remains of land and fresh-water animals and plants swept down by the stream are imbedded in the silts laid at times of flood.