|Photo by Mrs. Geotripper|
Oddly enough, for having spent two days getting to Death Valley National Park, one of our first stops was outside of Death Valley National Park. This was for the simple reason that we were looking to understand the nature of the rocks that make up the mountain ranges surrounding Death Valley. Because we didn't have enough time to climb most of the mountains, we would need to see what had rolled out of the mountains during the many flash floods and mudflows that had scoured their flanks over the countless centuries. I have honest students, but their conscience would have had a tough time dealing with all the little treasures they were about to find. So we made sure we were outside the park boundaries when we let them out onto the alluvial fans coming down from the Funeral Mountains. For many of my students it was their first experience in finding a fossil.
|Fossil crinoid stems. These are rare in oceans today (they are known as sea lilies), but during the Paleozoic era, they covered the sea floor like fields of wheat, and entire rock layers are composed of their fragments.|
Grand Canyon National Park has a similar range of rocks exposed in the depths of the gorge, but huge pieces of the story are missing because of episodes of erosion. Where the Grand Canyon has about 4,000 feet of Paleozoic sediments, Death Valley has more like 20,000 feet! How can 20,000 feet of sediment fit into a mountain range that rises no more than 5,000-6,000 feet above Death Valley and other grabens in the region? If you look at the photo of the Funeral Mountains below, the answer is apparent: the sediments in the mountain range have been tilted. To walk through 400 million years of Earth history, we need only to walk a few miles along the base of the mountains.
So, from a bit of wandering across a stony desert surface picking up random fossils, a story is told of massive supercontinents breaking apart and forming huge wedges of sedimentary rock that tell the story of 400 million years of evolution of life on planet Earth. In short, this is why I love teaching geology.