Thursday, March 20, 2014
Out of the Valley of Death: Mountains Hidden Within Mountains
So here is our class sitting in the midst of one of the greatest geological parks in the world, Death Valley. Rocks from nearly all the periods and eras of the geological time scale can be found within the boundaries of the park, and the park includes some of the oldest rocks in western North America (one has to get to Montana and Wyoming to find rocks that are older). They are quite literally sitting on the trace of a major fault line, and the darker slope on the left is a small volcanic cone that erupted along the fault. It's all the geological mayhem in one spot than anyone could ask for!
Miocene tuff and examples of faulting, a stop on the alluvial fan below a mountain of Paleozoic-aged fossil bearing limestone, and an exploration of a former rift valley containing late Proterozoic sediments. We had now reached the base of the Black Mountains of Death Valley, the deepest crustal rocks exposed anywhere in the park. They are exposed here because extreme extensional forces have ripped the crust apart, and the deep trough of Death Valley gives us a peek into the deeper parts of the continent. These are rocks from the early Proterozoic around 1.7 billion years ago. The radiometric age date of 1.7 billion years records the time that these rocks were metamorphosed, so the actual age of the protoliths (the original rock before metamorphism) is millions of years older still. There are hints of rocks and detrital grains (the Mojave Block) that may be as old 2.3 billion years, more than half the age of the Earth.
It wasn't until intense extensional forces ripped the crust apart, causing the graben of Death Valley to sink and form the imposing western face of the Black Mountains. As the mass of the overlying rocks slid off the deeper crustal rocks, the deep rocks domed upwards to form the curving footwall of the strange "turtlebacks" of Death Valley. In other words, the roots of an ancient mountain range rose to form the core of a modern day range, the Black Mountains: mountains hidden with mountains.