Geologic History of the Southwestern US: Reconstructing the Geologic Past

Geologic history is the key to this Guide and to understanding the story recorded in the rocks of the Southwestern US. By knowing more about the geologic history of your area, you can better understand the types of rocks that are in your backyard and why they are there. In this chapter, we will look at the history of the Southwest as it unfolded: as a series of major events that created and shaped the area over the past one billion years. These events will act as the framework for the topics in the chapters to follow and will shed light on why your region looks the way it does!

Examination of the available geological record tells us that the shape and position of North America has changed dramatically over the last billion years, and geologic processes continue these changes today. The Earth’s outer layer—the crust—is dynamic, consisting of constantly moving plates that are made of a rigid continental and oceanic lithosphere overlying a churning, plastically flowing asthenosphere—part of the Earth’s mantle (Figure 1.1). These plates are slowly pulling apart, colliding, or sliding past one another with great force, creating strings of volcanic islands, new ocean floor, earthquakes, and mountains. The continents are likewise continuously shifting position relative to each other. This not only shapes the land, but also affects the distribution of rocks and minerals, natural resources, climate, and life.

How do we know what the past is like?

Reconstructing the geologic past is a lot like solving a mystery. Geologists use scraps of evidence to piece together events they have not personally observed, but to do so they must contend with two major complications. First, the overwhelming majority of geologic history occurred long before there were any human witnesses. Second, much of the evidence for the older events is highly fragmented. By studying rocks, fossils, and other geologic features, however, scientists can still reconstruct a great deal of what the ancient Earth might have looked like.

See Chapter 2: Rocks to learn more about the different types of rocks found in the Southwest.

Rocks and sediments are indicators of past geologic processes and the environments in which those processes took place. In general, igneous rocks, created through tectonic activity, reflect the history of molten rock, both below the surface (plutonism) and at the surface (volcanism).

Figure 1.1: The layers of the Earth include the rigid crust of the lithosphere, which is constantly moving over the plastically flowing asthenosphere.

Figure 1.1: The layers of the Earth include the rigid crust of the lithosphere, which is constantly moving over the plastically flowing asthenosphere.

Lithosphere and Asthenosphere: What’s the difference?

The lithosphere is the outermost layer of the Earth, a rigid layer of crust and upper mantle broken up into fragments called plates. Although the rock of the asthenosphere would seem very solid if you could observe it in place, under long-term stress it slowly bends and flows, like very thick syrup. The difference between crust and mantle is mainly chemical: the lithosphere’s composition typically varies between basalt in oceanic crust and granite in continental crust, while the mantle is composed of homogenous ultramafic material. The boundary between rigid lithosphere and flowing asthenosphere is usually found within the mantle, and is largely a result of temperature increase with depth beneath the surface. In tectonically active regions of extension such as a mid-ocean ridge, where temperature rises rapidly with depth (compared to more tectonically stable regions), the asthenosphere begins nearly at the base of the crust.

Likewise, metamorphic rocks provide important clues about past mountain-building events. Geologists often use these rocks, created when sediment is subjected to intense heat and pressure, to map the extent of now-vanished mountain ranges. Sedimentary rocks tell perhaps the most comprehensive story of the Earth’s history, as they record characteristics of far-away mountain ranges, river systems that transported the sediments, and the final environment in which the sediments accumulated and lithified. The size and shape of sediments in sedimentary rocks, as well as the presence of fossils and the architecture of sedimentary rock layers (sedimentary structures), can help us infer how the sediments were transported and where they were finally deposited. However, because rocks are often reformed into different rock types, ancient information is lost as the rocks cycle through the igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary stages.

See Chapter 3: Fossils for more information about the Southwest’s prehistoric life.

Fossils indicate both the type of life that once flourished in an area and the kind of climate in which that life existed. Paleontologists use groups of fossils found in the same place to construct pictures of ancient ecosystems. These ecosystems of the past are matched to similar present-day ecosystems, whose climate conditions are then used to infer what sort of climate the fossilized organisms lived in. Unfortunately, few organisms can be easily preserved as fossils, and many environments also do not lend themselves to preserving organisms as fossils. As a result, the clues that fossils give us provide only incomplete glimpses of the ancient world, with many important details missing.

See Chapter 4: Topography for more detail about the landscape of the Southwest.

Landscapes and geologic structures are also indicators of past geologic processes and the environments in which they occurred. For instance, the shape of a valley reflects the forces that carved it. Valleys with V-shaped profiles tend to be the products of stream erosion, whereas U-shaped valleys are more likely to have been carved by glaciers. Layers of intensely folded rock indicate a violent past of tectonic plate collisions and mountain building. Sedimentary structures, such as ripple marks or cross-bedding, can demonstrate the direction and energy level of the water that transported the sediment. Although landscapes tell us much about the geologic processes that created them, they inevitably change over time, and information from the distant past is overwhelmed by the forces of the more recent past.

Ultimately, geologists rely upon the preserved clues of ancient geologic processes to understand Earth’s history. Because younger environments retain more evidence than older environments do, the Earth’s recent history is better known than its ancient past. Although preserved geologic clues are indeed fragmentary, geologists have become increasingly skilled at interpreting them and constructing ever more detailed pictures of the Earth’s past.

Sedimentary Structures

Sedimentary rocks often reveal the type of environment in which they formed by the presence of structures within the rock. Sedimentary structures include ripple marks, cross-beds, mud cracks, and even raindrop impressions. Consider the type of environments in which you see these sedimentary structures today in the world around you.

Ripple marks suggest the presence of moving water (though wind can also create ripples and even dunes). Mud cracks indicate that the sediment was wet but exposed to the air so that it dried and cracked.

Ripple marks suggest the presence of moving water (though wind can also create ripples and even dunes). Mud cracks indicate that the sediment was wet but exposed to the air so that it dried and cracked.

Cross-beds form as flowing water or wind pushes sediment downcurrent, creating thin beds that slope gently in the direction of the flow as migrating ripples. The downstream slope of the ripple may be preserved as a thin layer dipping in the direction of the current, across the natural flat-lying repose of the beds. Another migrating ripple will form an additional layer on top of the previous one.

Cross-beds form as flowing water or wind pushes sediment downcurrent, creating thin beds that slope gently in the direction of the flow as migrating ripples. The downstream slope of the ripple may be preserved as a thin layer dipping in the direction of the current, across the natural flat-lying repose of the beds. Another migrating ripple will form an additional layer on top of the previous one.

Earth’s Timeline

The geologic time scale (Figure 1.2) is an important tool used to portray the history of the Earth—a standard timeline used to describe the age of rocks and fossils, and the events that formed them. It spans Earth’s entire history and is divided into four principal sections.

The first of these four divisions, the Precambrian, extends from the beginning of the Earth, around 4.6 billion years ago, to the beginning of the Cambrian period, around 541 million years ago. The Precambrian, in turn, is subdivided into two sections: the Archean (before 2.5 billion years ago) and the Proterozoic (2.5 billion to 541 million years ago). Less is known about the Earth during the Precambrian than during later parts of its history, since relatively few fossils or unaltered rocks have survived. Nevertheless, the evidence that has been preserved and discovered reveals much about the planet’s first several billion years, including clear evidence that life first appeared on the planet some 3.9 billion years ago in the form of single-celled organisms.

About the Time Scale:

The time scale in The Teacher-Friendly Guides™ follows that of the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS). The Tertiary period, though it was officially phased out in 2008 by the ICS, remains on the scale in the Guides, since “Tertiary” is found extensively in past literature. In contrast, the Carboniferous and Pennsylvanian & Mississippian periods all enjoy official status, with the latter pair being more commonly used in the US.

Figure 1.2: The Geologic Time Scale (spacing of units not to scale).

Figure 1.2: The Geologic Time Scale (spacing of units not to scale).

Geologic Time

How did geologists come up with the timeline for the history of the Earth? The geologic time scale was developed over the course of many years—beginning in the early 19th century—and through the combined work of many geologists around the world. No single location on Earth contains the complete sequence of rocks from Precambrian to present. Geology as a science grew as geologists studied individual stacks or sections of rock and connected them to each other. Gradually, successions of fossils were discovered that helped geologists determine the relative ages of groups of rocks. These layers could then be correlated with similarly aged rock units from around the world. The names you see for the different periods on the geologic time scale have diverse origins; most are based on geographic areas where rocks of that age were first well studied. Time periods were named after dominant rock types, geography, mountain ranges, and even ancient tribes like the Silures of England and Wales, from which the “Silurian” period was derived.

The second division, the Paleozoic, extends from 541 to 252 million years ago. Geological evidence shows that during this time period, continents moved, mountains formed, and life evolved in the oceans and gradually colonized the land.

Pangaea, meaning "all Earth," began to assemble over 300 million years ago and lasted for almost 150 million years. All of the Earth's continents were joined as one to form a giant supercontinent.

The third division, the Mesozoic (from 252 to 66 million years ago), is also called the “Age of Reptiles” since dinosaurs and other reptiles dominated both marine and terrestrial ecosystems. It is also noteworthy that during this time the last of the Earth’s major supercontinents, Pangaea, formed and later broke up, producing the Earth’s current geography.

The last and current division, the Cenozoic, extends from the extinction of the dinosaurs, nearly 66 million years ago, to the present. With the demise of the dinosaurs, mammals became much more diverse and abundant. We humans didn’t come into the picture until the last two million years. To put this in perspective, if the entire geologic time scale were reduced to 24 hours, we wouldn’t come onto the stage until two seconds before midnight!