The data providing the insight into the mountains – so popularly renowned for durability – came from one of the most ephemeral of sources: raindrops. Or more specifically, the isotopic residue – fingerprints, effectively – of ancient precipitation that rained down upon the American west between 65 and 28 million years ago.
Atoms of the same element but with different numbers of neutrons in their nucleus are called isotopes. More neutrons make for a heavier atom and as a cloud rises, the water molecules that contain the heavier isotopes of hydrogen and oxygen tend to fall first. By measuring the ratio of heavy to light isotopes in the long-ago rainwater, researchers can infer the elevation of the land when the raindrops fell.
The water becomes incorporated into clays and carbonate minerals on the surface, or in volcanic glass, which are then preserved for the ages in the sediments.
Hari Mix, a PhD candidate in Environmental Earth System Science at Stanford, worked with the analyses of about 2,800 samples – several hundred that he and his colleagues collected, the rest from published studies – and used the isotopic ratios to calculate the composition of the ancient rain. Most of the samples were from carbonate deposits in ancient soils and lake sediments, taken from dozens of basins around the western U.S.
Using the elevation trends revealed in the data, Mix was able to decipher the history of the mountains. "Where we got a huge jump in isotopic ratios, we interpret that as a big uplift," he said.
"We saw a major isotopic shift at around 49 million years ago, in southwest Montana," he said. "And another one at 39 mya, in northern Nevada" as the uplift moved southward. Previous work by Chamberlain's group had found evidence for these shifts in data from two basins, but Mix's work with the larger data set demonstrated that the pattern of uplift held across the entire western U.S.
The uplift is generally agreed to have begun when the Farallon plate, a tectonic plate that was being shoved under the North American plate, slowly began peeling away from the underside of the continent.
"The peeling plate looked sort of like a tongue curling down," said Page Chamberlain, a professor in environmental Earth system science who is Mix's advisor.
As hot material from the underlying mantle flowed into the gap between the peeling plates, the heat and buoyancy of the material caused the overlying land to rise in elevation. The peeling tongue continued to fall off, and hot mantle continued to flow in behind it, sending a slow-motion wave of mountain-building coursing southward.
"We knew that the Farallon plate fell away, but the geometry of how that happened and the topographic response to it is what has been debated," Mix said.
Mix and Chamberlain estimate that the topographic wave would have been at least one to two kilometers higher than the landscape it rolled across and would have produced mountains with elevations up to a little over 4 kilometers (about 14,000 feet), comparable to the elevations existing today.
Mix said their isotopic data corresponds well with other types of evidence that have been documented.
"There was a big north to south sweep of volcanism through the western U.S. at the exact same time," he said.
There was also a simultaneous extension of the Earth's crust, which results when the crust is heated from below, as it would have been by the flow of hot magma under the North American plate.
"The pattern of topographic uplift we found matches what has been documented by other people in terms of the volcanology and extension," Mix said.
"Those three things together, those patterns, all point to something going on with the Farallon plate as being responsible for the construction of the western mountain ranges, the Cordillera."
Chamberlain said that while there was certainly elevated ground, it was not like Tibet.
"It was not an average elevation of 15,000 feet. It was something much more subdued," he said.
"The main implication of this work is that it was not a plateau that collapsed, but rather something that happened in the mantle, that was causing this mountain growth," Chamberlain said.
Mix will present results of the study at the American Geophysical Union annual meeting in San Francisco on Friday, Dec. 17, at 11:50 a.m. in Moscone South, room 310.
Andreas Mulch also contributed to the research. He is a researcher at BiK-F, a biodiversity and climate research center in Frankfurt, Germany, and a professor at Goethe-Universität.
Louis Bergeron | EurekAlert!
As sea level rises, much of Honolulu and Waikiki vulnerable to groundwater inundation
29.03.2017 | University of Hawaii at Manoa
Researchers discover dust plays prominent role in nutrients of mountain forest ecoystems
29.03.2017 | University of Wyoming
The Institute of Semiconductor Technology and the Institute of Physical and Theoretical Chemistry, both members of the Laboratory for Emerging Nanometrology (LENA), at Technische Universität Braunschweig are partners in a new European research project entitled ChipScope, which aims to develop a completely new and extremely small optical microscope capable of observing the interior of living cells in real time. A consortium of 7 partners from 5 countries will tackle this issue with very ambitious objectives during a four-year research program.
To demonstrate the usefulness of this new scientific tool, at the end of the project the developed chip-sized microscope will be used to observe in real-time...
Astronomers from Bonn and Tautenburg in Thuringia (Germany) used the 100-m radio telescope at Effelsberg to observe several galaxy clusters. At the edges of these large accumulations of dark matter, stellar systems (galaxies), hot gas, and charged particles, they found magnetic fields that are exceptionally ordered over distances of many million light years. This makes them the most extended magnetic fields in the universe known so far.
The results will be published on March 22 in the journal „Astronomy & Astrophysics“.
Galaxy clusters are the largest gravitationally bound structures in the universe. With a typical extent of about 10 million light years, i.e. 100 times the...
Researchers at the Goethe University Frankfurt, together with partners from the University of Tübingen in Germany and Queen Mary University as well as Francis Crick Institute from London (UK) have developed a novel technology to decipher the secret ubiquitin code.
Ubiquitin is a small protein that can be linked to other cellular proteins, thereby controlling and modulating their functions. The attachment occurs in many...
In the eternal search for next generation high-efficiency solar cells and LEDs, scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory and their partners are creating...
Silicon nanosheets are thin, two-dimensional layers with exceptional optoelectronic properties very similar to those of graphene. Albeit, the nanosheets are less stable. Now researchers at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have, for the first time ever, produced a composite material combining silicon nanosheets and a polymer that is both UV-resistant and easy to process. This brings the scientists a significant step closer to industrial applications like flexible displays and photosensors.
Silicon nanosheets are thin, two-dimensional layers with exceptional optoelectronic properties very similar to those of graphene. Albeit, the nanosheets are...
20.03.2017 | Event News
14.03.2017 | Event News
07.03.2017 | Event News
29.03.2017 | Materials Sciences
29.03.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
29.03.2017 | Earth Sciences