Paleotopography Speculation in the Tahoe Region

Looking out on the spectacular view of Andesite Peak from the summit of Castle Peak

Looking out on the spectacular view of Andesite Peak from the summit of Castle Peak

by John McCormick ’14 and Joe Grimley ’13

This week our geological journey brought us to McKissick Canyon, where the paleovalleys filled with “auriferous gravels” (these yielded phenomenal quantities of “placer gold” in the 1850’s) are only outdone by the volcanic deposits that blanket the landscape for hundreds of kilometers.

The pyroclastic volcanic rocks, filled with blocks of rock that were blown up in catastrophic eruptions and entrained in the flows, originated in volcanic centers in Nevada and funneled into paleovalleys that carried them far to the west  toward the Pacific Ocean. As we surveyed the outcrop and made our observations, we painted a picture of what the Sierra Nevadan landscape  used to be like millions of years ago…

Future geologist identify the composition of a volcanic rock of interest at MicKissick

Future geologists identify the composition of Campbell Creek Tuff, a volcanic rock of interest at MicKissick Canyon

Christine Siddoway explains the processes behind inverted topography demonstrated by jointing in the andesitic-basalt at Buckwowerth

As our expedition progressed, so did our understanding of the geologic history for the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The rocks of the Sierra Nevada preserve a record of a succession of dynamic geologic events that help us to reconstruct the topography of the past. Stages in the mountain evolution, illustrated in the sequence of paleotopographic profiles below, include:

1) initiation of the volcanic arc in oceanic setting, later to be accreted to North America  (displayed by early phases of the SN batholith complex)

2) Subduction of the Farallon Plate/ establishment of the Sierra Nevada Batholith complex as a continental margin arc (intermediate plutons of the Sierra Nevada Batholith)

3) Flattening of the Farallon oceanic slab/ Formation of the Nevadaplano (evidenced by isotopic information relating to paleoelevation)

4) Roll back of the Farallon Plate/ ignimbrite eruptions and volcanic rocks

5) Segmentation and subsidence of the Nevadaplano to form the Basin and Range (based on  oxygen isotopes from calcite and smectite)

Illustrated cross section of chronologic tectonic events that shaped topography

Interpretive cross sections illustrating the chronology of tectonic events that shaped topography

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Cenozoic rocks reveal the presence of a dramatic high-elevation region — an orogenic plateau named the “Nevadaplano” — that far surpassed the present-day Sierras in areal extent and elevation. Big rivers flowed from this region, carrying the auriferous gravels, and  large, violent eruptions emanated from volcanic centers in this region.  Based on the current topography of the North Sierra Nevada Range, the plethora of rocks within, and geochemical isotope data, we reconstructed a model and understanding of the paleotopography of the region dating back to 200 million years ago.

Along our educational journey, we still found moments to relax and unwind in Buckeye hot springs, nestled between a dripping travertine mineral deposit and a cold mountain stream.

Students enjoying a well deserved detox in the Buckeye Hot Springs (left to right) Andrew Pontbriand, Vikki Crystal,Will Durrett, Josh Feldman, Henry Fricke, and Joe Grimley

Students enjoying a well deserved detox in the Buckeye Hot Springs (left to right) Andrew Pontbriand, Vikki Crystal,Will Durrett, Josh Feldman, Henry Fricke, and Joe Grimley

And, to have a little fun at Serene Lake  playing ultimate Frisbee.

Will Durrett aims the frisbee as Henry Fricke prepares for an epic lay-out to tie the game

Will Durrett aims the frisbee as Professor Henry Fricke prepares for an epic lay-out to tie the game

Four courageous students charge into the brisk pond after a rousing game of ultimate frisbee (left to right): Andrew Gregovich, John McCormick, Josh Feldman, and Edward Crawford (Outside temperature 40degrees Feirenheit )

Four courageous students charge into the brisk pond after a rousing game of ultimate frisbee (left to right): Andrew Gregovich, John McCormick, Josh Feldman, and Edward Crawford (Outside temperature 40degrees Fahrenheit )

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The paleotopography of the Tahoe region is only a small fraction of the overall development of the Sierra Nevada Range.  As we explore several more sites in the future, we will puzzle together the processes and features that composed the paleotopography of the Sierra Nevada Range.

1 Comment

  1. Gracie Rennecker says:

    Beautiful pictures! Thanks for sharing your trip!

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