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My plans for my summer’s big adventure out west revolved around seeing the mountains.
For an Arkansan that may seem odd, for we’ve got plenty of mountains in the Natural
State. But out west they have BIG mountains, not the worn down nubbins we know.
Wyoming’s Teton Range is the youngest mountain range in North America and formed in
a completely different way than Arkansas’ Ouachita Mountains. (Image courtesy Gerald
As a matter of fact we only have one true mountain range in Arkansas, the Ouachita
Range. The Ozarks Mountains are in reality an eroded uplift that resulted from long
term erosion. Driving through the Ozarks and the Ouachita there is a lot of similarity
in appearance because of the surface vegetation but if you look at the bones — the
rocks that underlie the thin veneer of topsoil — you’ll notice that the rock beds
in the Ozarks lie horizontal while in the Ouachitas the rock strata often have a sharp
angle of repose and sometimes are even vertical. The black shale road cut just south
of the Arkansas River on I-430 in Little Rock and at various locations up the river
as far as Fort Smith show this same near vertical orientation.
The Ouachita Range owes its existence to the bumping and grinding when the earth’s
land masses merged into a giant supercontinent called Gondwana about 280 million years
ago. A giant chunk of what is believed to have once been attached to South America
is shoved under the crust of South Arkansas and East Texas. The collision that triggered
the compression and uplift of the Ouachitas is also associated with causing the Ozark
Dome to lift out of the sea and remain high and dry for the eons to come.
The Rocky Mountains are relatively young mountains, having been formed 50-70 million
years ago when the California Plate bumped up directly against the North American
plate. The North American plate has been moving west at its current latitude at a
rate of about an inch a year, or about as fast as your fingernails grow. In Colorado,
it is estimated that the earth’s crust was reduced in distance by about 25 to 50 miles
between the western Colorado line and the Front Range of the Rockies.
This compression caused mountains to lift up, just as if you pushed two sides of a
table cloth together. Wrinkles would form. Sometimes the uplifted crust was relatively
shallow and only involved relatively young rocks. Other times, sedimentary rocks from
deeper in the mantle were buckled and tilted on their ends. These old sedimentary
sandstone rocks, some 1.5 to 2 billion years old, metamorphed into hard schists that
often had cracks and seams between the layers of hard rock. Molten silica and sometimes
magma (later to become granite) infilled these voids. If the infill was silica, it
was often infused with impurities of silver and gold. The silica seams were the veins
miners hoped to find when they dug into the rocky hillsides of the western states.
Much of the red rock splendor I viewed in Utah was erosion of an uplifted plateau,
similar to what we have in the Ozarks. For much of the time after the breakup of Gondwana
and until about 50 million years ago, Utah sat near the equator and was part of a
shallow sea - dry land region that was in and out of the water with great regularity.
But, when the Rocky Mountains formed, Utah arose from the shallow sea. Part of the
land was uplifted and became a dome while some was pushed downward into a shallow
bowl. The high parts eroded away while the low parts filled with fresh water and the
sediments from the high parts. Over time the rivers cut into these sediment-filled
basins and created the cliffs and spires for which the state is known. Much of the
sculpting done in the state has been by the Colorado River, and some features such
as the Grand Canyon are thought to be less than 10 million years old.
Yellowstone National park is another kind of uplift, the one caused by the intrusion
of magma from the depths towards the surface. Yellowstone is known as a roving “hot
spot”, apparently a crack in the mantle that slips beneath the earths crust and creates
new uplifted regions. Volcanism can also create mountains when one continental plate
slides across another as happened in Arkansas’ own Crater of Diamonds State Park.
But what moves together can also move apart. The 40 mile long Teton Range in Wyoming
is the youngest mountain range in North America, clocking in at between 7 and 9 million
years. It sits amidst a number of mountains that were formed during the compressional
event that created the Rockies, but the Teton formation is caused by a rift in the
earth’s crust known as the Teton Fault. The stretching of the crust caused the massive
block of crust to split open. The western edge of the rift uplifted, thrusting the
range more than a mile high while the adjacent eastern edge sank, forming the low
point known as Jackson Hole.
My understanding of mountain building is still incomplete, but by seeing lots of examples
I’ve developed a deeper understanding and appreciation for the forces that create,
and then wipe away, these magnificent piles of rock.
Gerald Klingaman is a retired Arkansas Extension Horticulturist and retired Operations
Director for the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks. After more than two decades of penning the popular Plant of the Week column, he’s taking a new direction, offering views on nature as he pokes about the
state and nation. Views and opinions reflect those of the author and are not those
of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. If you have questions
or comments for Dr. Klingaman about these articles contact him at email@example.com.