Tuesday 5 November 2013


Looking back at Earth' beginnings – no fossils yet embedded in those stones

What am I looking at here, standing at the fringe of a small cliff, looking down some 100 meters on a tiny mountain rivulet? This must be a small canyon carved out by the river out of black stone, possibly granite? This canyon could lie in any old mountain region in the world.

In fact, we are witnessing here not only one, but three extraordinary vistas/experiences. So, let the story begin. This picture shows only a tiny fraction of the monstrosity of a canyon, just the last finishing touch of an almost infinite earth cleft, more than 1.5 kilometers deep.

The day before, a cool day in the beginning of March 1977, we had been camping on snow powdered heights, among pine trees, and accompanied by the odd deer, wondering what we were doing out there in the frozen wilderness. That very morning, we arrived at the edge of that enormous rift, below us an immensity of open spaces, of a depth and width that made us hold on to each other, lest vertigo get the better of us and draw us down into the void.

Looking at Earth' Old Age – life exploding about one third down from the opposite rim
This picture shows it all. Almost 1.5 kilometers down you see a plateau, on which a trail is winding its way to the end of a cliff. Follow the trail as far as you can see. Then imagine trekking down the slope to its right, until you have climbed down to the little sun-lit promontory you see almost hiding in the shadows. This is were I would be standing half a day later and my wife Alice would take the picture of me you have seen above.

Does it surprise you, seeing this immensity, that we both had been completely overwhelmed by a longing to get down there, that could be quenched only by rushing to the trail start and almost running down the slopes? There was no planning, no worries about how to carry this endeavor through, no water bottles; we just HAD to go down there and see the river!

Said and done; after several hours increasingly slower descent we finally arrived at the plateau you are seeing above. No snow and ice down there, we were in the desert and the sun was heating up! And we were thirsty! And, to our surprise, the trail seemed to go on for ever on that damn plateau! Fortunately, about one kilometer into it, there was an oasis where we could quench our thirst. Invigorated, we carried on and eventually arrived at the promontory mentioned above. Should we go farther?

By then it was already past midday, and reason (or rather Alice) prevailed. It was time to go back, lest we be lost, thirsty, freezing and starving, in the upward slope at sunset. 

The laborious way back up – worse than it looks!

This little tale takes care of the first experience, a memory I cherish and a hike I wish everyone could take once in his life; earlier rather than later, though!

When you are young and foolish, exhilarating exploits are your main interest. Thus, apart from admiring the many-colored stones on the way down and back up I gave little thought to what could be learned from the multitude of earth layers being literally at my grasp.

Some years later, I happened to stumble over a book describing the geology of Grand Canyon and was stupefied by what I read! Walking down that canyon is like taking a voyage back in time. Here is the one place on Earth were you can have a close look at all the stone strata that existed between 1.5 billion and 250 million years ago! The black granite mentioned at the beginning of this post shows also the beginning of time. It stems from the Proterozoic Age which precedes what is geologically perceived as the beginning of Earth' Old Age.

As you are laboring up the canyon wall, slowly puffing your way around all those serpentines, you pass the Cambrian and Silurian Periods. About two thirds up the canyon walls, you begin to see the Carboniferous Period. First now, after more than two billion years, can Earth be envisaged exploding in life, giving rise to a sizable stratum of organic based material. The journey ends with the Permian Period when almost all forms of life were being extinct again, a fitting end to an ascension ending at Grand Canyon's rim.

Now to the third experience: the hike described above started and ended on Grand Canyons' South Rim. From there, we intended to carry on into Utah, to visit Zion National Park, already described in the preceding blog post (Angels landing in Valleys of Fire). So, fast forward! The following day, we had already had a quick look down the Northern Rim and were proceeding our trip northward. The landscape evolving before us was impressive enough. The land was tilting downwards for many miles, providing a panoramic view of some high plateaus rising in the far distance. This proved irresistible to yours truly, and I just HAD to stop the car to preserve the vista for the future. Here is the result:

Looking from afar at Earth' Middle and New Ages
And again, the vista I was fortunate enough to admire, due to its beauty so suitable to a nice camera shot, turned out to be far more significant than my young eyes perceived it to be. Some years later, a friend from the US sent me, as a gift, a beautifully drawn geological presentation on a wide parchment, with the enticing title "THE GRAND STAIRCASE". It showed a sequence of plateaus,  starting with the Grand Canyon Rim, arranged like a gigantic staircase, with each plateau ending with an almost vertical drop-off. It took some time for me to realize that my photo above was a perfect presentation of ALL THE STEPS on this staircase. Unfortunately, I have lost the parchment in one of my many moves, but Internet came to my rescue with a similar presentation:

The "Grand Staircase" of the Colorado Plateau"  Source: Blakey & Ranney
The first drop-off in the staircase is called "Chocolate Cliffs", just barely visible in my photo as a small dark line on the bottom of the general escarpment. It represents stone layers belonging to the first era in Earth' Middle Age, the Triassic Period. Thereupon follows the "Vermillion Cliffs", the pink escarpment on the photo. Together with the following section, the "White Cliffs", it represents layers from the Jurassic Period. The Virgin River has cut through both of those stairs, like a sharp knife, to form Zion Canyon. Why not have a closer look by glancing at that canyon, observing a wall of sheer Vermillion, and with a White crown on top. Throughout those layers, mighty dinosaurs roamed the Earth and the first Redwoods and Sequoias were invading the slopes.

Looking at the Age of Mighty Dinosaurs
The Gray  Cliffs come next. glimpsed as the lower part of the distant mountain range in my photo. They represent the Cretaceous Period, at the end of which the Dinosaurs, as most other animals and plants, met a sudden extinction, just as other types of life in the Permian Period some 200 million years afore. The color is fitting the event, don't you think? 'Nough said about this!

The rosy pink colors of dawn are greeting us in the uppermost layers of those distant mountains. This is also fitting, since they indicate the emergence of modern times, with Tertiary and Quarternary stone layers adorning the lofty heights of Cedar Breaks and Bryce Canyon, reigning almost 3000 meters above sea level. These layers are especially colorful when the morning or evening sun is flattering their flanks. Let me begin to show this with a picture of Cedar Breaks National Monument in the early morning hours. The Pink Cliffs clearly visible now show stone strata formed about 60 million years ago, at the bottom of a prehistoric sea.

Looking at the Age of Mammals
How come that these cliffs are so well preserved, considering that erosion is always eating away the most recent – and exposed – stone layers first, keeping the more ancient strata underneath for future consumption? We are extremely lucky to be able to still se them! Consider the top of the mountain, reigning over the cliffs at an altitude of more than 3000 meters. Here we see the remains of a volcano, which erupted just 30 million years ago and covered the cliff strata with hardened lava stones, that withstand the test of time more easily than the underlying limestone cliffs and protect those, except where a sudden drop-off of the mountain exposes the underlying layers vertically to the seasons. Thus, rain, wind, sunshine, snow, cold and heat are eating into the limestone from the mountain's flank and, give or take a ten million years or two, will have gobbled up the mountain top we are still observing. After this, only pink rubble will be left of the mountain, covering the underlying grey strata of the Cretacious Period.

Opposite to this South-Western flank of this mountain range lies Bryce Canyon National Park, which is much larger and has a far greater collection of intricate sculptures in pink to show for it. Thus, the mountain – which really is a volcanic stone covered table land, called the Pansaugunt Plateau – is being attacked by erosive forces from two flanks, hastening the pace of its demise. But this is to our pleasure, since few places on Earth have such a collection of delicate stone statues, painted in delicate ink, to show for them.

Mankind appearing at the uppermost border of this layer
But the sheer beauty of these cliffs should not detain you from recognizing that the stone strata in question are holding remnants of the origin of our own species. Earth' New Age is the age of mammals, and we are just the latest link on their evolution. Who knows what will appear after us in the millions of years to come?

Having digested all this heavy information, you may well ask yourself this: how is it possible that there are still people, in this huge country, where Earth' history can be read like an open book, that believe – and schools that teach – that Earth was created some 5000 years ago and actually shaped within a period of six days? I would strongly recommend persons holding such a view to take a trip to the Four Corner Region and follow the "Angels". Why not start by taking the Bright Angel Trail down Grand Canyon and Back Up, identifying each rock stratum as you pass it by, and counting the billion years it took to shape them. Why not continue by ascending Angels Landing in Zion, to ponder the fate of our great predecessors on Earth, the mighty Dinosaurs. Why not complete the journey by hiking down the Navajo Loop Trail in Bryce Canyon, to consider the emergence of our forefathers, the first mammals, and their development over millions of years until present time?

Would such a journey into the past lead a true believer astray from his firm belief in a higher being and creator? Not necessarily! Who is to say that the days of God are counted in the same manner as we are counting the days? What about the first day, when out of darkness came the command "Fiat Lux!"? Has this God's day not a duration that, in an infinite sequence, is tending towards infinitesimal length, indicating the very moment at which a first event, called the "Big Bang" by us humble men, was initiated? Man has come far in his consideration of space, time and evolution. But we are still not able to reach as far back as to that infinitesimal moment, not to speak of the why and how of its occurrence. So who could disprove a firm belief that this event was caused by a higher being, for reasons forever hidden from us humble humans? Thus, for a firm believer, belief in a higher being can always be reconcilable with the facts written in stone; that the Earth is more than 4.5 billion years old!

I see that I am getting into matters far too serious. Let's stop the bickering here and finish this post in a lighter mode. Why not have a last look at a narrow canyon slot, actually a leaning together of two Hoodoos, as experienced by my late wife Alice, when we were treading the Navajo Loop Trail, so many years ago.

Alice pondering the meeting of two hoodoos


Anonymous said...

Hi. Excellant writing and beautiful pictures as usual. I have been to all of those places as well a a walk down Bright Angel Trail. I don't think I could do it now though. Jerry

Emil Ems said...

Let's meet there, Jerry and have another go at it, wouldn't that be fun? ;-)

Awaiting your response,

Anonymous said...

Wieder sehr beeindruckende Fotos und anschauliche Erklärungen, Danke

HC said...

Dear Emil
Thanks for this wonderful trip through space and time.
Couldn’t help being somewhat surprised at your question how many people can still believe that the Earth was created only 5,000 years ago. My experience is that religious believers by definition believe in concepts completely irreconcilable with generally accepted scientific findings. That’s what makes their beliefs religious.
Incidentally, I just read a note about the Christian Scientists who say they have no need for Obamacare, as they believe that prayers provide a better form of health care. Thus, they don’t need doctors and hospitals, neither do they wish to rely on the virtues of medical science. While refuting science they call themselves scientists! You see, in the realm of religious beliefs, anything is possible.
Hans Christian

Emil Ems said...

Dear Hans Christian,
Thank you kindly for a comment well thought through! I am glad I am not a Christian Scientist, otherwise I would be dead already!

As to the religious content of this blog, more is to come soon. So keep attuned!

Unknown said...

Dear Emil,
Today I have finally started to read your blog. Before I have just looked at your amazingly beautiful pictures, and I really liked your writing. It tells a lot of interesting parts from the long story of how the scenic geology in south west US has been formed, but in a story together with your own experience from your first visit there and your thoughts about it.
My first geology compendium when studying at Chalmers started with a chapter, or maybe two, written by Gunnar Beskow, professor in Geology and son to the great Swedish author Elsa Beskow. He also had the great ability to express the story about Swedish geology in a way that inspired us students to dig further in this subject. Have you ancestors being authors as well, Emil?
Ingemar Johansson

Emil Ems said...

Thank you so much, Ingemar, for your interesting comment. To this I would like to add my thanks for your excellent guiding of our Group of Eight. This helped me a lot in organizing my blog writing.

As to your question: my father was a baker in a small village on the East-Austrian countryside and I was actually the first from that village that got a higher education (except the Lord of the Manor, of course). So I am a first generation intellectual and (humble) author.