Monday, July 11, 2011

A Convergence of Wonders, Day 9: Into the Depths of the Crust, and of Time

We've been traveling through the Pacific Northwest and northern Rocky Mountains on a class in geology and archaeology for the last nine posts. Yesterday we made our way south from Glacier National Park over a corner of the Great Plains. Today (that is, June 23rd) we would be headed someplace different: down to the deepest part of the Earth's crust, and into the depths of geologic time. We were going to have a look at some of the oldest rocks on the planet.

How does one get to the base of the Earth's crust, or even into the mantle? Given that the base of the crust is 15 or 20 miles beneath us, and the deepest tunnel ever dug is 2 1/2 miles, one cannot walk or ride there. What we have to do instead is find a place where the crust has been brought up to us. Such a place is the Beartooth Mountains on the Montana/Wyoming border near Yellowstone.
In late Cretaceous and early Cenozoic time, around 70-50 million years ago, the crust in the Rocky Mountains was being twisted and deformed by an errant and misguided slice of Pacific Ocean crust that had somehow become trapped sliding along the base of the continental crust until it reached Montana and Wyoming, where it was finally able to sink. The mountain-building event, which formed much of the Rocky Mountains (including the mountains around Glacier National Park), is called the Laramide Orogeny. The rocks of the Beartooth Mountains were pushed up and over Cretaceous sedimentary rocks. Way, way up. The rocks originated in the deepest part of the continental crust, and these rocks are old. Very, very old.
Our first stop was within the Stillwater complex, a unique sequence of rocks that may have originated in the deepest parts of the crust, and which may have had an ultimate source in the Earth's mantle very close to the outer core. The Stillwater complex is a layered intrusion, a pluton composed of various kinds of peridotite and gabbro (the rocks are composed largely of the mineral olivine, which is also known as the gemstone peridot). It formed 2.7 billion years ago, making these rocks almost the oldest we would see  on the trip (more in a moment). Such complexes are quite rare at the Earth's surface, and contain an interesting mix of rare elements and minerals. We were parked near the Stillwater Mine, which is actively extracting platinum, chromium, and other rare metals. The mine dumps include some nice samples of magnetite, olivine, pyrrhotite and other interesting minerals.
By early afternoon, we were done with the Stillwater, and headed to Red Lodge for a class in the park. The students were listening with rapt attention, they said. Their closed eyes made it easier for them to concentrate on the meanings of the words they were hearing. That's what they said, and since students in my classroom are always saying the same thing, it must be true...
Red Lodge marks the beginning of one of the most remarkable roads in the United States, the Beartooth Highway. From an elevation of about 5,600 feet, the road climbs to the summit region of the Beartooth Plateau at just short of 11,000 feet. It is a marvelous place to see the work of glaciers, but even more stunning is the age of the rocks that the road is built on.
The rocks are composed of metamorphic rocks like gneiss, schist, and quartzite, with an occasional intrusion of granitic rock. The rocks formed between 2.7 and 3.3 billion years ago, which makes them very old (more than a billion years older than anything in California), but remarkably, fragments in the quartzite are even older! Zircon is a very tough mineral that resists being destroyed by erosion or metamorphic activity. Grains of zircon survive the Earth's recycling process that tends to destroy almost any other mineral. Quartz is another durable mineral, but it cannot usually be dated easily, but zircon can be dated. Grains of zircon in these mountains have been dated at 4 billion years. For comparison, the Earth itself is 4.6 billion years old. These grains in these rocks are the most ancient objects I've ever held that didn't fall to Earth from space (meteorites are generally leftovers of the origin of the Solar System and are the same age as the Earth).
The Beartooth Highway provided the most spectacular glacial features seen on our trip outside of Glacier National Park. The picture above shows a wonderful example of a U-shaped valley. Glaciers tear away at the walls of a valley, unlike a river, which only erodes the valley bottom. Glaciers cannot turn corners well, so the U-shaped valleys tended to be very straight. Hanging valleys, smaller glacial troughs that couldn't cut to the same level as the trunk glacier, are seen high on the main valley walls.

The Beartooth Mountains take their name from the "fang" seen in the picture below, beyond the head of the circular valley called a cirque. These bowl-shaped valleys in the highest reaches of the mountains were the origin point for the glaciers (snow would blow off the highest summits and ridges, so glaciers couldn't form on them, but in the shaded cirques instead). Sharp knife-edged ridges between glacial valleys are called aretes (not pictured).
It was strange to drive from summer to winter in the space of an hour. The road had opened to traffic only a week or so before we arrived.
The summit plateau provided a wonderful panorama of the Beartooth and Absarokapre-European period.
As we drove out of the Beartooths towards tiny (and somewhat unfriendly) Cooke City, we had a nice view of Pilot Peak, an outstanding example of a glacial horn, a spike of rock that has been plucked by glaciers from three sides or more.
Driving through the Lamar Valley in the late afternoon, we were reminded of just how big the snowpack was this year, and how big the flooding danger was. The road was being undercut by the surging river.
We had arrived in Yellowstone National Park! We didn't have much chance to explore, as the sun was nearly down, and our camp was on the other side of the park, at Madison. And Yellowstone is a big park. Our explorations would start in the morning...


Gaelyn said...

WOW, such amazingly ancient rock. And I thought the Vishnu was old, not.

I learn so much here even without being on the field trip. You all have seen So much terrain.

I'm sure those students were listening. I mean, they're your students, right? ;)

Anonymous said...

Your blog is truly awesome. The photos are great. I'm learning so much - was up there last year. I know how much time something like this takes, so thanks for doing it. Wish I were on the trip with you all.