The Physical Geography of the Western Cypress Hills, Alberta and Saskatchewan


The west block of the Cypress Hills is a unique Canadian landscape. This broad dissected plateau extends about 29 km westward and 17 km eastward from the Alberta-Saskatchewan boundary between latitudes 49o 30' and 49o 40' N. The plateau rises westward from an elevation of 1310 m in Saskatchewan to 1465 m in Alberta, the highest point in southern Canada between the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains. Pediments on the south and east and steep escarpments on the north and west descend over 600 m from plateau to the surrounding plains. Local relief of over 300 m and an abundance of steep slopes contrast sharply with the low-relief terrain of the surrounding southern Interior Plains. Unlike most Canadian landscapes, a model of major landscape evolution during Wisconsinan deglaciation does not apply to the western Cypress Hills above an elevation of about 1250 m (Stalker 1965).

The interior of the west block is drained by Battle Creek which flows eastward from its source in Alberta. In Saskatchewan it flows south-eastward in a major glacial meltwater channel that bisects the plateau. The Battle Creek watershed lies at the northern extreme of the Mississippi River drainage. Thus the west block is a continental divide since drainage from the northern slope is towards the South Saskatchewan River.

Bedrock Geology

The lower slopes of the Cypress Hills are underlain by dark shale, sandstone, carbonaceous beds, clay, bentonite and ironstone of the Upper Cretaceous Bearpaw, Eastend, Whitemud, Battle and Frenchman Formations (Furnival, 1941). These strata are overlain by 85 to 145 m of Tertiary sediments. The Paleocene Ravenscrag Formation is a sequence of thinly-bedded, fine-grained sandstones with numerous beds of lignite and bentonite. The Eocene - MioceneCypress Hills Formation forms a prominent caprock, consisting of conglomerate and gravel with lenses and beds of sandstone, bentonite and marl (Kupsch and Vonhoff, 1967; Leckie and Cheel, 1989). Large rounded to subangular clasts of quartzite, chert, argillite and volcanic porphory are supported by a matrix of coarse sand. The conglomerate is cemented with calcium carbonate precipitated from groundwater at the air-rock interface. Thus "the lateral extent of cementation is small and the process is continuous with slope retreat" (Kupsch and Vonhoff, 1967: 771).

The main geologic structure is the broad Cypress Hills anticline which plunges eastward at 2.5 m/km (Furnival, 1946). The dip of the Tertiary strata is greater on the northern slope of the west block than on the southern slope. The elevation of the contact between the Ravenscrag and Cypress Hills formations decreases from about 1450 m at the western end of the west block to 1080 m at the eastern end of the east block. Uplifting of the Cypress Hills anticline and associated folding and faulting probably occurred in the Eocene or early Oligocene.

Table 1. Table of Formations, west block, Cypress Hills (after Furnival, 1946; Leckie and Cheel, 1989).

Epoch Formation Thickness (m) Lithology
Upper Eocene - Miocene Cypress Hills 15-76 conglomerate, sandstone, sand, gravel
Paleocene Ravenscrag 70+ sand, silt, clay, lignite
Upper Cretaceous Frenchman 3-45+ sandstone, shale
Battle 6-9 bentonitic, shale, silt, sand
Whitemud 10-14 clay, sandstone, silt
Eastend 21-37 sand, silt, clay, lignite
Bearpaw 285-305 marine shale, sandstone

Origin of the Cypress Hills

The origin of the Cypress Hills began with the Eocene emergence and denudation of the ancestral Rocky Mountains. Sands and gravels transported from these mountains by large rivers were the source of the Cypress Hills Formation. McConnell (1885) suggested that the surface of the Cypress Hills plateau is depositional. Similarly, Alden (1924) interpreted the plateau as the surface of coalescing alluvial fans. Williams and Dyer (1930) and Crickmay (1932), on the other hand, contended that the plateau represents an erosional surface. Crickmay noted the variability in the thickness of the caprock and an extinct drainage system that extends to the edges of the plateau.

The Cypress Hills are a remnant of late Tertiary erosion that lowered the bedrock surface of the northern Great Plains to its present level (Russell and Wickenden, 1933). Preservation of Mesozoic strata in the Cypress Hills has been attributed to their anticlinal structure (Furnival, 1946), location midway between the South Saskatchewan and Missouri Rivers (Crickmay, 1965), and protection by a resistant caprock (McConnell, 1885; Williams and Dyer, 1930; Alden, 1932; St. Onge, 1972).


By virtue of their height above the surrounding plains, the Cypress Hills are one of a few small areas in Canada to lie above or beyond the limit of Pleistocene glaciation. Stalker (1965) concluded that 300 km2 of the west block would have been a nunatak rising about 90 m above the Wisconsinan Laurentide ice sheet. The only expressions of glacial geomorphic activity are meltwater channels (e.g. Battle Creek Valley, Medicine Lodge Coulee) and scattered, presumably ice-rafted glacial erratics (Klassen 1987; Vreeken 1990).

Unlike the surrounding plains of predominantly glacial origin, the dominant processes of landscape evolution have been fluvial dissection of the plateau and subsequent or contemporaneous mass wasting of the valley sides. Thus the major Quaternary deposits are colluvium and recent alluvium. An extensive post-glacial loess is preserved on the plateau surface (Catto, 1983). Rain and snowmelt water readily permeate the loess and underlying coarse permeable Tertiary sediments, limiting the effectiveness of fluvial processes on the plateau but creating instability in the underlying Upper Cretaceous and Paleocene sediments. Seeps and springs are common on the valley sides, particularly on landslide scarps.

Climate and Vegetation

The climate of the Cypress Hills is subhumid and cool, although local climate varies considerably with aspect from dry grassland sites to humid forested slopes. Mean annual temperature and precipitation are 2.5o C and 457 mm (Cowell, 1982). Approximately 70% of the annual precipitation occurs in May and June. On the plains at Medicine Hat, mean annual temperature and precipitation are 5.3o C and 348 mm. The vegetation is about 50% grassland, 45% woodland and 5% wetland. It is characterized by six major vegetation communities (Breitung, 1954).

Pinus contorta (lodgepole pine) forest occupies drier areas at elevations above 1300 m. These forest stands are often dense and even-aged, with little understory. The nearest populations of Pinus contorta are in the Cordilleran montane and subalpine forests to the west (Rowe, 1972; Scoggan, 1978), with the exception of the Sweetgrass Hills along the Alberta-Montana border (Thompson and Kuijt, 1976). Picea glauca (white spruce) forest is found in cool, moist areas near wetlands and on north-facing slopes. The nearest populations of Picea glauca are in the Sweetgrass Hills along the Alberta-Montana border (Thompson and Kuijt, 1976), and on north-facing slopes in protected coulees tributary to the Red Deer River valley near Drumheller, Alberta, and in the Bow River Valley near Calgary (Zoltai, 1975). Several of the understoryspecies have distributions disjunct with montane populations. These include a number of mosses (Bird, 1962), grasses and herbs (Breitung, 1954; deVries and Bird, 1968). Populus tremuloides (trembling aspen) woodland occurs as a belt along the north side of the plateau just below the Pinus contorta forest, along moist creek beds, and in stands scattered throughout grassland on the plateau summit.

Mixed prairie (Coupland, 1950) is the predominant grassland on the lower, eastern portions of the plateau and also on dry south-facing slopes. This is the grassland characteristic of the surrounding prairie. The most common grasses are Stipa spartea, Stipa comata, Bouteloua gracilis, Koeleria cristata, and Agropyron spp. Fescue prairie (Coupland and Brayshaw, 1953) is at the higher elevations on the western part of the plateau, where annual precipitation exceeds 450 mm. The dominant species in this grassland are Festuca altaica, Festuca idahoensis, Danthonia spp., and Agropyron spp. Finally, wetland vegetation occurs where groundwater is discharged in the valley bottoms.

Holocene Environmental History

The permanent lakes and coniferous forest of the Cypress Hills are an important source of proxy paleoenvironmental data, which generally are not available on the surrounding plains. Given the comparatively large relief and complex topography, the vegetation is ecotonal, and the distributions of the varied geomorphic and hydrologic systems and ecosystems are more sensitive to climatic change than natural systems in the surrounding landscapes of lower relief and plant diversity.

Holocene vegetation change has been interpreted from a continuous 9120-year pollen record (Sauchyn and Sauchyn, 1991). This is one of the few continuous pollen records from the northern Great Plains which extends to the early Holocene. This record indicates that a Populus forest-grassland complex was established by 9000 yr BP; very little coniferous forest was present at that time. The predominance of grassland and saline-tolerant vegetation between 7700 and 5000 yr BP defines the altithermal for this region. Climatic deterioration followed, as indicated by increases in relative amounts of conifer and aquatic taxa pollen. The Pinus contorta and Picea glauca forests characteristic of the Cypress Hills today only have been prevalent since about 4600 yr BP; both species were present in very low numbers throughout the altithermal. By 3230 yr BP the modern vegetation was established, with little change since then.

An understanding of the late Quaternary geomorphology of the Cypress Hills is limited due to a lack of systematic research and a near total absence of paleoenvironmental data. Jungerius (1969) and Jungerius and Mucher (1969) identified Holocene paleosols, including fossil forest soils. Gryba (1972), Westgate (1972), Catto (1981) and Vreeken (1986) described subaerial late Quaternary sediments. In each case, however, chronological control was relatively poor.

Interpretation of pollen, organic matter content and sedimentation rates from Harris Lake and a review of published descriptions of recent sediments suggest a transition in dominant Holocene geomorphic processes in the western Cypress Hills from fluvial and aeolian erosion before 5100 yrs BP to rotational landsliding after 4500 yrs BP (Sauchyn, 1990). This corresponds to a significant mid-Holocene climatic change from the dry conditions and phytoinstability of the altithermal, 7700-5100 yrs BP, to maximum humidity during the period 4500-3000 yrs BP.

The interpretation of 4500-3200 yrs BP as the period of highest soil and surface water balances is corroborated by soil evidence from the western Cypress Hills. From the radiocarbon ages and polygenetic profiles of buried soils, Jungerius (1969) and Jungerius and Mucher (1969) concluded that 4500-3600 yrs BP was a time of major forest expansion and maximum Holocene humidity. The present climate and vegetation have existed for about 3000 yrs, although lower temperature and plant productivity are implied by the relatively low percentage of organic matter from 3000-2400 yrs BP.

These climate changes are similar to those inferred from other paleoenvironmental records from the northern Great Plains and adjacent Rocky Mountains. MacDonald (1989) presented palynological evidence of a Pinus flexilis parkland and warm dry climate for southwestern Alberta from 7600-5500 yrs BP, and a climatic deterioration thereafter. In northwestern Montana, evidence of a cooler climate appears about 6000 yrs BP, with progressively wetter conditions after 3600 yrs BP (Barnosky 1989). A cool period in the Cypress Hills at 3000-2400 yrs BP coincides with a global phase of glacier expansion (Grove 1979). Luckman et al. (1990) proposed a 'mid neoglacial' glacial advance in the Canadian Rocky Mountains between approximately 3000-2500 yrs BP. Similarly, Leonard (1986) documented increased glacial lake sedimentation in the same region after 4000 yrs BP, reaching approximately present levels by 2750-2650 yrs BP, and decreasing after about 2200 yr BP. Wilson (1987) showed that 3000-2500 yrs BP was a period of downcutting in the Saskatchewan River system of western Canada, possibly reflecting a cooler, moister climate.

A low rate of pre-Mazama sedimentation in Harris Lake (8 cm/100 yrs) and the presence of aspen forest suggest that the landscape was relatively stable from 9120-7700 yrs BP. In southern Alberta, the most strongly developed paleosols date to the early Holocene (Valentine et al. 1987, p. 228). Waters and Rutter (1984, p. 203) concluded that these soils formed during a short period of landscape stability, "ending by the time of Mazama ash deposition". In the Cypress Hills, soil development in the early Holocene may have been accompanied by deposition of loess (Vreeken 1986).

Incomplete surface cover and episodic, accelerated erosion characterized the altithermal landscape of the Cypress Hills. The rate of sedimentation in Harris Lake from 6800-5120 yrs BP (14.5 cm/100 yrs) was close to the Holocene maximum and considerably higher than the pre-Mazama rate. High yields of mineral sediment are indicated by the decline in lake sediment organic matter to less then 7% during the period 6100-5300 yrs BP. While low terrestrial and aquatic plant productivity would account for an absolute decrease in organic matter content, a rise in the quantity of mineral sediment would cause a further relative decrease.

Evidence of accelerated fluvial erosion should exist in the stratigraphy of footslope and floodplain deposits. Unfortunately, few dated sections of Holocene alluvium are described in the literature on the Cypress Hills. Westgate (1972) reported radiocarbon dates of 7300 yrs BP at 4.5 m and 3880 yrs BP at 1.2 m in alluvial sediments exposed by Battle Creek. Although these data are obviously limited, the comparison with Harris Lake is interesting: greater alluvial and lacustrine sedimentation during the periods 7300-3880 and 6800-3450 yrs BP, respectively, than in more recent time.

In general, the period 5000-3000 yrs BP is regarded as a time of landscape stability and soil formation on the southern Interior Plains (Valentine et al. 1987, p. 228). Sparse pedologic and stratigraphic evidence from the Cypress Hills suggests that floodplains and alluvial fans were relatively stable (Jungerius 1969; Jungerius and Mucher 1969; Westgate 1972). The relatively humid conditions postulated here imply a complete vegetation cover and the dominance of pedogenesis over fluvial and aeolian erosion. However, the sedimentation rate during the period 5120-3450 yrs BP (17 cm/100 yrs) is the highest for the Harris Lake core. Furthermore, the organic matter content is low from 4100-3600 yrs BP, suggesting that a higher proportion of the lake sediment was inorganic.

The explanation for this apparent contradiction between the soil evidence and rate of mineral sedimentation in Harris Lake is the role of landsliding in exposing the clastic bedrock to fluvial erosion. In the western Cypress Hills, virtually all valley-side slopes have a morphology characteristic of rotational landsliding. The physiography, hydrogeology and bedrock lithology favour slope instability under conditions of persistent groundwater recharge. Excess porewater and low shear strength in the bentonitic clays are the probable cause of rotational landsliding (Sauchyn and Goulden, 1988).

A relatively cool and wet late Holocene climate would have resulted in increased groundwater recharge and reduced discharge by evapotranspiration, conditions that promote slope instability. From relative age data and 3 radiocarbon dates on organic sediments buried in depressions, Goulden and Sauchyn (1986) determined that 17 landslides typical of the Cypress Hills occurred in the late Holocene. One of them, the Harris Lake landslide, is older than 1635 yrs BP but late Holocene in age. This landslide is approximately 1 km west of Harris Lake on the south-facing side of the meltwater channel containing the lake. Age data also are available for Benson Creek landslide, which extends for about 2 km along the north side of Battle Creek valley. It has a maximum age of 1745 +/- 85 yrs BP (S-2772) (Sauchyn and Goulden 1988) and a minimum age of 1445 +/- 320 yrs BP (S-2907), the age of basal sediments from a 1.75 m core extracted from a pond on the landslide. Thus it is late Holocene in age and most likely predates 1470 yrs BP and the lowest sedimentation rates in Harris Lake.

If it is assumed that the Harris Lake basin is representative of the western Cypress Hills, the progressive decrease in lake sedimentation rates through the late Holocene may reflect decreasing frequency and magnitude of landsliding. The change to a wetter climate after 4500 yrs BP may have prompted a major readjustment of hillslopes. Once large sections of valley side failed and approached a new equilibrium, subsequent failures may have been less frequent and confined to smaller areas. Contemporary rotational landsliding in the western Cypress Hills generally occurs on the upper sections of existing landslides.

Unlike the western Cypress Hills, late Holocene climate change did not result in the establishment of forests on the surrounding plains. Thus, any post-altithermal decline in regional erosion rates probably was less pronounced and was certainly counteracted by agricultural land use in this century. On the other hand, extrapolation of a landslide chronology to valleys on the semi-arid plains may be justified, but there are no data at present to test the hypothesis that episodes of slope instability in these valleys and the Cypress Hills were coeval.


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