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Sierra Nevada rose to current height earlier than thought, say Stanford geologists
Date:4/23/2008

the Pacific Ocean as it blew onto the continent and crossed the Sierra Nevada. As the air gains elevation, it cools, moisture concentrates and condenses, and it rains. Water containing heavier isotopes of hydrogen tends to fall first, resulting in a systematic decrease in the ratio of heavy water molecules to lighter ones in the remaining water vapor.

Because so much of the airborne moisture falls as rain on the windward side of the mountains, land on the leeward side gets far less rain - an effect called a "rain shadow" - which often produces a desert.

The higher the mountain, the more pronounced the rain shadow effect is and the greater the decrease in the number of heavy hydrogen isotopes in the water that makes it across the mountains and falls on the leeward side of the range. By determining the ratio of heavier to lighter hydrogen isotopes preserved in volcanic glass and comparing it with today's topography and rainwater, researchers can estimate the elevation of the mountains at the time the ancient water crossed them.

Volcanic glass is an excellent material for preserving ancient rainfall. The glass forms during explosive eruptions, when tiny particles of molten rock are ejected into the air. "These glasses were little melt particles, and they cooled so rapidly when they were blown into the atmosphere that they just froze, basically," Mulch said. "They couldn't crystallize and form minerals."

Because glass has an amorphous structure, as opposed to the ordered crystalline structure of minerals, there are structural vacancies in the glass into which water can diffuse. Once the glass has been deposited on the surface of the Earth, rainwater, runoff and near-surface groundwater are all available to interact with it. Mulch said the diffusion process continues until the glass is effectively saturated with water.

Other researchers have shown that once such volcanic glass is fully hydrated, the water in it does not under
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Contact: Louis Bergeron
louisb3@stanford.edu
650-725-1944
Stanford University
Source:Eurekalert

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