January 2014

The magic that made the mountains

By Peter Miesler

Back in 1979, through a series of serendipitous cross-country hitch-hiking adventures I found myself driving down into Silverton and it was love at first sight — the setting, the town, the people, the community. Before I went to sleep that evening I knew it was going to be home for a long time. Indeed, I lived there for six years going strong, when a woman’s love proved stronger and down to the banana-belt I scampered.

But it’s the mountains and geology I want to talk about in this essay. Today I smile thinking back on that young buck looking down his nose at the jumbled mess of rocks that was the Rocky Mountains. Layers going this way, then that way, hard layers on top of soft layers, cliff faces that seemed trustworthy, then crumbled and killed. I was unimpressed.

Back then, the Rockies were no comparison to “my” Sierra Nevada Mountains, were I had lived in Yosemite National Park for nearly three years. How I’d rhapsodize about Yosemite Valley, the most magnificent granite cathedral in the world, nestled within California’s incomparable “Range of Light.”

Well, it turned out there was as a good reason for the dramatic difference. The Sierra Nevada is the result of a single series of events during a (relatively) single period of time and place.

What happened was that a couple hundred million years ago, huge plumes of lava rose through the Earth’s crust, but they didn’t have the oomph to reach the surface. Instead they spread along fracture zones that had been created by the “Pacific Ocean Tectonic Plate,” plowing into the “North American Tectonic Plate.” The plumes clumped together to form a huge “batholith” of relatively homogeneous composition.

This batholith was like the biggest loaf of Challah bread ever, over 400 by 70 miles, but rather than flour, this dough was composed mainly of the elements oxygen and silicon, with small percentages of six other elements and trace amounts of another 80. Baked under tremendous pressure and heat, it then cooled and solidified while being slowly pushed towards the surface.

“Slowly” is a key concept here – because while this huge piece of magma dough was slowly cooling, mineral crystals had a chance to keep growing. The final result was a granite light in color with large crystals that reflect sun and moon light as no other mountain range. Added to the fact that the rocks are hard, but between glaciers and weathering have been smoothed to a finish that’s downright sensuous in areas, it’s easy to imagine how they might entrance.

The Rockies, on the other hand, were an old gnarly mess. You could find 1.8-millionyear- old rock touching 400-million-year-old rock. The old stuff was once a chain of volcanic islands that billions of years ago traveled across the Pacific Ocean before slamming into our continent, the young stuff forming in the bottom of an ancient inland sea.

As I learned more about the stories that each of the Rockies’ fascinating rock types tell, it became a bewildering cacophony of countless stages of mountain building and erosion, first oceans, then seas coming and going, rivers flowing one direction only to get disrupted, then flowing in an altogether different direction, land subsiding and being filled in with the eroded remnants of great mountains accumulating to incredible depths, only to once again get thrust upward and exposed to the erosional forces of high elevations... sun and temperature, wind, water and gravity.

Whereas the Sierras tell a simple story that’s easy to grasp, the Rocky Mountains are a mélange reflecting billions of years’ worth of our continent’s evolution through a bewildering variety of stages that I found next to impossible to get straight.

Then my daughter, knowing my fascination with geology, gave me her used and no-longer-needed geology textbook: “Ancient Landscapes of the Colorado Plateau” by Professor Ron Blakey and Wayne Ranney, master geology interpreter. It was like receiving the Rosetta Stone. Scattered lessons fell into place and I discovered a coherent understanding for what transpired in my new corner of the world over the past billion years.

The maps in this book are based on hundreds of studies over many decades, where professors and students have gone out to map and officially describe geologic horizons throughout the Colorado Plateau. Whereas a fraction of such findings was enough to overwhelm me, Professor Blakey had the education, training and vision to know how to organize this cacophony of information.

After painstakingly organizing these studies from throughout the region, not just geographically, but also according to age, Blakey began to construct a new breed of geologic map. Instead of the traditional clinical color banding, loaded with tons of esoteric symbols, Blakey made use of Adobe Photoshop and GeoMap App to inventory and manipulate Earth Observation images.

Remaining true to the scientifically accepted descriptions of each landscape in its prescribed time period, Blakey combed images of modern landforms to find corresponding representative landscapes. Then he cut and pasted those images of rivers, deltas, sand dunes, mountains and prairies, savannas and forests, each in their rightful place.

When finished Blakey created a series of maps that offer a view of ancient landscapes as though taken from a Landsat satellite that had gone through a time-warp. It was amazing and, for anyone who has ever wondered about the evolution of our planet and continents, compelling, like single frames of a time-lapse movie yearning to be made.

Even better, Blakey hasn’t limited himself to 75 time slices of the Colorado Plateau. He’s made three more time series of North America, one of Europe and a series of 30 time slices looking at the entire planet. You can find the list at http://cpgeosystems. com/products.html. A search on YouTube brings up a few rough animations based on Blakey’s maps along with some excellent lectures by Wayne Ranney and Ron Blakey.

And now my little story turns into a sales pitch. It seems the dream of getting these images transferred into a Pixar-quality HD animation with narration has been stalled for years because of a lack of serious backing. Ron Blakey is a scientist; he has done his work. Wayne Ranney also a scientist, has done a superb job of explaining how these maps were made and what they are telling us. Now they need the missing producer (Hello, Telluride) to translate this knowledge into a sensational animation.

It seems to me that such a high-quality time-lapse movie, “Ancient Landscapes in Motion,” could have an impact, akin to Apollo’s “Whole Earth”... and Voyager’s “Blue Dot” images. But, rather than a single image re-calibrating our sense of space and Earth’s place in the universe, this human achievement would recalibrate our sense of time and place – to better appreciate humanity’s tenure on this planet. Telluride, when can we expect your call?

Peter Miesler writes from Durango, Colo., and has a blog at citizenschallenge.com.