Researchers finally unveil the mystery behind Great Canyon's missing rocks that go back a billion years

Fareeha Arshad
Photo byPhoto by Jason Thompson on Unsplash

The enigmatic geological phenomenon known as the 'Great Unconformity' at the Grand Canyon has puzzled scientists for years. This gap of over a billion years in the rock layers, where no deposition occurred, remains a geological mystery. Geologist John Wesley Powell first observed this peculiar gap during his exploration of the Colorado River in 1869. The rocks adjacent to the unconformity are dated to be 1.4-1.8 billion years old, while those above are only 520 million years old. This stark contrast raises the question of what happened to the missing rock layers.

In a recent study, scientists propose a complex geological history for the Grand Canyon, suggesting that different parts of the site underwent varying shifts over time, resulting in the erosion and transport of rocks and sediment to the ocean. Researchers can unravel the history of the Great Unconformity by using new analytical techniques, such as thermochronology, which measures the heat stored in rocks during formation. These methods involve analyzing the chemical composition of rocks to determine the pressure they were subjected to.

The data collected through thermochronology indicate a series of significant faulting events during the breakup of the supercontinent Rodinia approximately 633 to 750 million years ago. These geological disturbances could explain the gaps in the rock record, as the violent tectonic activity may have prevented the settling of rock layers uniformly. The study reveals that the western half of the Grand Canyon experienced different geological processes than the more familiar eastern half frequented by tourists. The western half exhibited rising basement rocks around 700 million years ago, while the eastern half had these same rock layers buried under kilometres of sediment.

Although the research does not fully solve the mystery of the Great Unconformity, it represents a significant step forward. The team believes similar techniques can be applied to locations in the United States where similar geological irregularities have been observed. Despite the ongoing mysteries, the Grand Canyon continues to awe scientists and visitors alike due to its natural beauty and remarkable geological timeline spanning billions of years.

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I am a scientist by profession and a historian by passion. I mostly write about history and science.

Texas State

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