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

no evidence to support this scenario, data revealed that a modest uplift of 1,100 to 2,000 feet (350 to 600 meters) did occur as recently as 3 million years ago.

The Stanford team obtained their results by conducting a chemical analysis of ancient raindrops unearthed in the Sierra during the California Gold Rush. In addition to providing important insights for geoscientists, the authors say their findings could lead to more accurate assessments of global climate change.

"If you want to make a climate model and project out into the future, you need to test your model by running it back in time and seeing how it matches similar climate histories in the past," Chamberlain said.

"Determining when the mountains rose is an important question, because the effect of a relatively tall range on precipitation and climate is very significant," said Mulch, a postdoctoral scholar in Stanford's Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences and lead author of the study. "Making the mountains twice as high would therefore make the impact twice as large."

Heavy raindrops

To determine when the Sierra rose to its current height, the scientists used an increasingly popular research tool that combines geology and chemistry to create a record of prehistoric rainfall patterns dating back millions of years. This technique relies on the fact that in nature, hydrogen and other atoms occur in different sizes called isotopes. Deuterium, for example, is a slightly heavier form of hydrogen, and drops of rainwater that contain deuterium isotopes often fall at lower elevations.

"If you have a cloud coming in and dropping out water, as it climbs the mountain its preference is to first drop the heavy water that's rich in deuterium," Chamberlain said. "As you go up in elevation, the raindrops become lighter and lighter. Therefore, the rainwater becomes gradually depleted of deuterium the higher up the mountain range it falls."'"/>

Contact: Mark Shwartz
mshwartz@stanford.edu
650-723-9296
Stanford University
6-Jul-2006


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