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Ancient raindrops reveal the origins of California's Sierra Nevada range

One of the longest ongoing controversies in Earth science concerns the age of California's Sierra Nevada, the tallest mountain range in the continental United States and site of Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe and other scenic wonders.

"The debate falls into two camps," said C. Page Chamberlain, professor of geological and environmental sciences at Stanford University. "One is that the mountains rose from sea level in the last 3 to 5 million years, which is very recent on a geologic time scale. The other group suggests a much more ancient origin going back 60 million years or so."

Now, in a study published in the July 7 edition of the journal Science, Chamberlain and Stanford colleagues Andreas Mulch and Stephan A. Graham present strong evidence that the Sierra Nevada range has stood tall--7,200 feet (2,200 meters) or higher--for at least 40 million years.

"An elevation profile drawn across the northern Sierra Nevada 40 to 50 million years ago would not look much different than today's profile," said Graham, the Welton Joseph and Maud L'Anphere Crook Professor of Applied Earth Science at Stanford.

"Those mountains probably have persisted since the Mesozoic Era--more than 65 million years ago--until today," Chamberlain added. Back then, according to many scientists, California was split by an ancient subduction zone--a region of constant geologic upheaval, where a plunging oceanic tectonic plate continuously pushed the continental North American plate higher and higher to create the Sierra Nevada range.

This version of events is in sharp conflict with the "recent uplift" scenario, which argues that the Sierra rose from sea level to 7,200 feet about 3 million to 5 million years ago after an enormous block of the Earth's crust broke off and fell into the mantle. According to this hypothesis, the crust was then replaced by hot, buoyant mantle material that eventually raised the mountains. Although the Science study found
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Contact: Mark Shwartz
mshwartz@stanford.edu
650-723-9296
Stanford University
6-Jul-2006


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