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Driving northeast along U.S. Highway 54 from Tucumcari, New Mexico to Guymon, Oklahoma,
I felt I was traveling along the roof of the world even though most of the terrain
was tabletop flat and only about 4,000 feet above sea level. So flat I almost felt
as if I could see the curvature of the earth in the distance. This area was part of
the great inland sea, the Western Interior Seaway that once occupied this space and
shaped the Great Plains from Canada through Texas.
Digging holes is one of the things boys do on a farm for entertainment. In my case,
they were foxholes for the battles my brothers and I engaged in. Digging down in the
red dirt on a hilltop of central Oklahoma, I was surprised to find clamshells. How
did they get up here, my 9-year-old mind wondered. Of course now I know they were
left behind as evidence of the Western Interior Seaway that once flooded over our
The Seaway started spreading south across Canada from the Arctic circle about 80 million
years ago. About 70 million years ago the Rocky Mountains began forming, a geologic
event that lasted for more than 20 million years. As the California plate pushed relentlessly
against the North American plate, the land to the east of the uplift began to slowly
subside. Gradually this subsidence was enough to fill the middle of the continent
with a warm, shallow sea that extended from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico
and reached depths of as much as 3,000 feet.
At its maximum, the Western Interior Seaway was 650 miles wide and extended into the
western counties of Arkansas and, by traversing low ground, as far east as Memphis.
As the mountains are being lifted up, erosion began to tear them down. The erosion
that washed from the new mountains accumulated in the shallow Seaway. These fans of
sediment accumulated in flat expanses at the base of the mountains.
As the Rocky Mountain building episode ended about 50 million years ago, the whole
region around the mountain chain was uplifted and the waters of the seaway began to
recede. As the water receded, large areas of anoxic (poorly oxygenated water) developed
and left behind the red soils of central Oklahoma because of incomplete iron oxidation.
The last evidence of sea life deposition in the region occurred around 26 million
Once out of the water, the newly exposed sea floor began the process of erosion. Because
of the rain shadow created by the Rocky Mountains, the annual precipitation in much
of that region is about 15 inches per year. For a flat state, Kansas has one of the
best state roadmaps. It clearly shows the gradual transition from flat, lightly eroded
lakebed in the drier, western part of the state to the more rolling, more heavily
eroded parts of eastern Kansas.
Monument Rock in west-central Gove County Kansas, is a small cluster of chalk monuments
standing 70 feet tall. Because of some fluke of erosion and a hard cap rock on top,
these monuments remain and give a cutaway version of erosion over the past 25 million
years in this particular place. Shark’s teeth abound along with a wide array of other
sea creatures that would have been found in a shallow seaway. In nearby locations,
18-foot-long predatory fish have been found. Deeper down dinosaur tracks and whole
skeletons have been found that were left behind before the Rockies rose up and the
Western Inland Seaway formed.
From human perspective the mountains are immortal, but from a planetary point of view,
they are but an accumulation of dirt that will be slowly washed away and spread across
the landscape. My two-month ramble in the West helped me get a better understanding
of the enormity of the mountains and yet better appreciate that everything on this
old planet is just passing through, so we better appreciate it while we can.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.