Check out the recent issue of Geosphere for some new insights / interpretations of lava and river interactions in Grand Canyon (with an interesting lidar application):
From Geosphere, February 2008; v. 4; no. 1; p. 183-206
History of Quaternary volcanism and lava dams in western Grand Canyon based on lidar analysis, 40Ar/39Ar dating, and field studies: Implications for flow stratigraphy, timing of volcanic events, and lava dams
Ryan Crow, Karl E. Karlstrom, William McIntosh, Lisa Peters, and Nelia Dunbar
A synthesis of the geochronology on basalt flows from the southern Uinkaret volcanic field indicates that basalts erupted within and flowed into Grand Canyon during four major episodes: 725–475 ka, 400–275 ka, 225–150 ka, and 150–75 ka. To extend the usefulness of these dates for understanding volcanic stratigraphy and lava dams in western Grand Canyon, we analyzed light detection and ranging (lidar) data to establish the elevations of the tops and bottoms of basalt-flow remnants along the river corridor. When projected onto a longitudinal river profile, these data show the original extent of now-dissected intracanyon flows and aid in correlation of flow remnants. Systematic variations in the elevation of flow bottoms across the Uinkaret fault block can be used to infer the geometry of a hanging-wall anticline that formed adjacent to the listric Toroweap fault.
The 725–475 ka volcanism was most voluminous in the area of the Toroweap fault and produced dike-cored cinder cones on both rims and within the canyon itself. Mapping suggests that a composite volcanic edifice was created by numerous flows and cinder-cone fragments that intermittently filled the canyon. Reliable 40Ar/39Ar dates were obtained from flows associated with this period of volcanism, including Lower Prospect, Upper Prospect, D-Dam, Black Ledge, and Toroweap. Large-volume eruptions helped to drive the far-traveled basalt flows (Black Ledge), which flowed down-canyon over 120 km. A second episode of volcanism, from 400 to 275 ka, was most voluminous along the Hurricane fault at river mile 187.5. This episode produced flow stacks that filled Whitmore Canyon and produced the 215-m-high Whitmore Dam, which may have also had a composite history. Basaltic river gravels on top of the Whitmore remnants have been interpreted as “outburst-flood deposit” but may alternatively represent periods when the river established itself atop the flows. Remnants near river level at miles 192 and 195, previously designated as Layered Diabase and Massive Diabase, have been shown by 40Ar/39Ar dating to be correlative with dated Whitmore flow remnants, and they help document the downriver stepped geometry of the Whitmore Dam. The ca. 200 and 100 ka flows (previously mapped as Gray Ledge) were smaller flows that entered the canyon from the north rim between river mile 181 and Whitmore Canyon (river mile 187.5); they are concordant with dates on the Whitmore Cascade as well as other cascades found along this reach.
The combined results suggest a new model for the spatial and temporal distribution of volcanism in Grand Canyon in which composite lava dams and edifices, that were generally leaky in proximal areas, were built from 725 to 475 ka near Toroweap fault and around 320 ka near Whitmore Canyon. New data on these and other episodes present a refined model for complex interactions of volcanism and fluvial processes in this classic locality. Available data suggest that the demise of these volcanic edifices may have involved either large outburst-flood events or normal fluvial deposition at times when the river was established on top of basalt flows.
Check out the interesting graphics the authors provide about lava dams: