Friday, May 11, 2012

What's Missing From This Picture? Only a billion years or so...

Geology is good for perspective. The bookends of this particular day: the very very long hour spent trying to restart a dead car in a remote canyon, and a billion years in one hand. I'm on the road researching a field seminar for the AAPG in Arizona and Nevada, and I saw some incredible things.

1.7 billion years ago, fragments of continental crust were colliding to form the core of a new North American continent. Those mountains climbed to the sky, rivaling the Himalaya or the Andes in their grandeur. The time was so ancient that not a bit of life existed on the mountain flanks. The only lifeforms at all were single-celled organisms in the oceans.

The forces pushing the mountains upwards ended, and the ice and rain tore away the flanks. The gigantic peaks eroded to hills, and in hundreds of millions of years, the hills eroded to nearly flat plains. They were gone, but the rocks that formed the roots of those mountains remained. Around 530 million years ago, the continent had begun to break up, and the edges subsided slowly while a shallow sea advanced. The beach sands swirled back and forth across the roots of the ancient mountains.
An unconformity is a buried erosional surface. Sometimes the time missing might be a few hundred thousand or a few million years. The unconformity in the Grand Canyon is profound, representing a gap of a one thousand million years. Get to the right place, and you can place your hand across 1,000,000,000 revolutions around the sun: nearly a quarter of the age of the Earth.

The problem with the Great Unconformity, as the early geologists called it, is that it is mainly exposed in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. There are only a few ways to see it and touch it: you can float down the Colorado River in a raft, or you can walk down the long difficult trails from the rim of the canyon. Or, as it turns out, you can drive.
I left Las Vegas this morning and traveled up Lake Mead Boulevard. The growth of the town has slowed with the depression, but over the last twenty years I've watched the urbanization of the valley wash up the slopes of Frenchman Mountain on the eastern edge of town like a tsunami. Fortunately, the wave stopped at the boundary of the city limits and the federal lands around Lake Mead. It turns out that the rocks making up the Great Unconformity are exposed no more than a mile from the residential neighborhoods of Sin City. The sand layers of the Tapeats Sandstone cover the weathered granite and schist of the 1.7 billion year old basement complex.
The geologists at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas knew of the treasure in their backyard. Years ago they set up a trail and some very nice interpretive exhibits. I regret to say that vandals and garbage dumpers destroyed the exhibits in a short time, but you can still see the rocks.

If the exposure lacks anything, it is grandeur. The oldest rocks of the Grand Canyon are at the bottom of one of the deepest and longest gorges in the world, and there is much to be said for seeing the rocks in their full perspective, underneath a mile of subsequent sedimentary layers. When time or health is short, hiking or rafting is not feasible. But I was on a mission today, to see the only place in all of the Grand Canyon where one can drive to the Great Unconformity. It is well-known to rafters as it is the take-out point for the river voyagers. It's called Diamond Creek, and Peach Springs Canyon. The road starts at the administrative headquarters of the Hualapai Nation in Peach Springs, and winds 19 miles and 3,500 feet down to the Colorado.
Anyone who has seen the Grand Canyon, either in pictures or in person, has to wonder how any road could intrude into such rugged terrain. There are so many cliff-forming layers that a road seems next to impossible (which it is, given that only one exists). But Grand Canyon is also crossed by faults and folds, and the disruption of the cliff-forming layers is what makes roads and trails possible. The road starts innocently enough, dipping into rolling terrain composed of Mio-Pliocene sediments that have huge significance in understanding how the Grand Canyon was carved. We actually follow canyons that originated at the end of the age of the dinosaurs (the Cretaceous Period) and were subsequently filled, and then exhumed in the last hiccup of geological time.

Heading deeper into the canyon, we see some evidence of deformation; in the picture below, we can see a gentle monocline crossing the picture where the layers step down in elevation without splitting. A major fault zone, the Hurricane fault, crosses the canyon in front of the fold. The road turns and follows the fault zone.
The gorge becomes deeper and deeper, and we pass into older and older layers. The Mississippian Redwall limestone forms the highest cliffs, and the lower cliffs are dominated by the Devonian Temple Butte limestone and Cambrian Muav limestone. The gentler slopes cover exposures of the Cambrian Bright Angel shale. The rocks on the left side of the canyon sit around a thousand feet lower than the rocks on the right due to displacement along the Hurricane fault.
The cliffs grow higher and higher, and we finally reach the base of the Paleozoic rocks with exposures of the Tapeats sandstone, the same layer seen at Frenchman Mountain in Las Vegas. The Tapeats can be seen in the first picture of this post, forming the prominent layers at the lower left. The orange-brown rocks at the base of the cliff are the 1.7 billion year old granite and schist.
It would take only a moment's walk to lay one's hand on the unconformity, but we also wanted to see the Colorado River. We were nearly 16 miles into the canyon, with only three to go. We got into the car, turned the key....and nothing. Not a click, not a warning light, nothing. 16 miles into the depths of the Earth, and we had a dead car.
So we had the longest hour I've ever felt (aside from the births of my children), trying anything and everything to get the car going again. A construction crew stopped by, five guys in one truck, and we did the engine worship thing where all six of us stood around the open hood and jiggled connections. A river runner came up the road with his boat trailer. He had room, so Mrs. Geotripper jumped in to go arrange for a tow truck. River runners like this guy drive this road all the time, so the Missus had a regular Mr. Toad's Wild Ride up the bumpy road. Meanwhile, I stayed with the car, pretty much preparing to camp out for the night. The ranger for the Hualapai tribe showed up, and we did some more jiggling of engine connections, and he helped me get the transmission unstuck, but we still weren't getting anything when I turned the key. In final desperation, we tried the obvious, and pulled out the jumper cables. They worked.

I zoomed up the road, picked up Mrs. Geotripper, and sped on to Williams without turning the car off once. Thus, our unexpected night in a motel, and a delay, looking for a saturday mechanic before we head on to Grand Canyon tomorrow. And internet access! We'll see what surprises tomorrow holds for us.

By the way, the ocotillos were blooming in the lower canyon...enjoy!
NOTE: Tourism is almost the sole source of income for the Hualapai tribe. You need to pay an exploration fee of $25/person at the Hualapai Motel in Peach Springs. Looking at the town of Peach Springs, I was glad to give them some support.


Ron Schott said...

Gee, the lengths a great teacher will go through to illustrate a concept! ;-)

Best wishes for a full recovery for the car. May the remainder of your journey be as picturesque as it has begun!

Gaelyn said...

Your description of the Great Unconformity is excellent. I have stood in awe with my hands spanning the gap in time along the North Kaibab trail and stared at it from the river. But I was so tired when I road out from Diamond Creek I missed it all together.

Sure hope you can solve the car problem. A little disconcerting to be stuck where you were.