New geological evidence indicates the Grand Canyon may be so old that dinosaurs once lumbered along its rim, according to a study by researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder and the California Institute of Technology.
The team used a technique known as radiometric dating to show the Grand Canyon may have formed more than 55 million years ago, pushing back its assumed origins by 40 million to 50 million years. The researchers gathered evidence from rocks in the canyon and on surrounding plateaus that were deposited near sea level several hundred million years ago before the region uplifted and eroded to form the canyon.
A paper on the subject will be published in the May issue of the Geological Society of America Bulletin. CU-Boulder geological sciences Assistant Professor Rebecca Flowers, lead author and a former Caltech postdoctoral researcher, collaborated with Caltech geology Professor Brian Wernicke and Caltech geochemistry Professor Kenneth Farley on the study.
"As rocks moved to the surface in the Grand Canyon region, they cooled off," said Flowers. "The cooling history of the rocks allowed us to reconstruct the ancient topography, telling us the Grand Canyon has an older prehistory than many had thought."
The team believes an ancestral Grand Canyon developed in its eastern section about 55 million years ago, later linking with other segments that had evolved separately. "It's a complicated picture because different segments of the canyon appear to have evolved at different times and subsequently were integrated," Flowers said.
The ancient sandstone in the canyon walls contains grains of a phosphate mineral known as apatite -- hosting trace amounts of the radioactive elements uranium and thorium -- which expel helium atoms as they decay, she said. An abundance of the three elements, paired with temperature information from Earth's interior, provided the team a clock of sorts to calculat
|Contact: Rebecca Flowers|
University of Colorado at Boulder