The bizarre race to find a missing billion years

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A billion years have vanished from the geological record, and scientists still can’t agree on why, 152 years after it was discovered.

“FEARFUL DISASTER,” read the front page of the Chicago Tribune on July 3, 1869.

The incident involved a motley crew of explorers led by the one-armed, self-taught geologist John Wesley Powell. Their mission was simple, but not easy: travel 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometres) downstream from the banks of Wyoming’s Green River, cataloguing their discoveries as they went.

It had been several weeks since the party had been heard from, and public concern was growing. A man who claimed to be the sole survivor was now speaking to the press. Powell, he said, had been standing on his boat, waving his hat in a cheery farewell… just before the entire expedition plunged directly into some deadly rapids. After several hours, the narrator discovered a lone carpet- The bag was floating down the river. It held Powell’s notebooks.

The tragic news was widely publicised in the week that followed. Powell’s wife, on the other hand, was not convinced – and it turned out she was correct. It quickly became clear that the source had almost certainly never met Powell, let alone accompanied the expedition. His entire story was fabricated.

Meanwhile, the explorers continued their journey, completely unaware of the strange scandal that was unfolding back home. Soon after, the living, breathing Powell discovered a very different kind of disappearance – a vanishing that would confound geologists for the next century and a half.

The lost years

Powell’s team, an unusual mix of trappers, suspected fugitives, Native American scouts, former editors, and ex-convicts, had loaded four wooden rowing boats with everything they needed for their journey, including a number of sophisticated scientific instruments, two months earlier. They raised their little American flag and pushed off into the rush of water below, surrounded by well-wishers.

The journey would last 10 months and would require a great deal of courage to complete. There were almost daily encounters with swirling rapids, raging waterfalls, and threatening rocks, and Powell had to sprint away from a 20-ft (6m) wide flash flood of red mud at one point. The team lost an oar just hours after leaving, and in less than two weeks, One of their boats was washed away. Only six of the original party’s ten members would return home.

On August 13, 1869, the team arrived at the Grand Canyon for the first time. They only had a month’s worth of food left – some soggy apples, putrid bacon, musty flour, and a sack of coffee – and many unknown dangers awaited them. The men were joking around as usual, but Powell wrote that “the cheer is sombre and the jests are ghastly” to him.

Even in these desperate times, the team was awed by a never-ending parade of wonders. There were imposing scenery on the scale of giants all around, with grand spires, ornately carved buttresses, and strange, angular pinnacles. Powell was especially taken with the cliffs, which he later described as a “library of the gods” – a place where colourful layers of rock formed the “stony leaves of one great book,” in which they could read how the universe was created line by line.

At least, that’s how it appeared at first. But then Powell noticed something strange in the dizzying heights of the canyon walls.

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Standing at the base of the cliffs, he could see a thick section of hard, crystalline rocks, mostly granite and schist (highly compressed slate or shale), arranged in unusual vertical layers. Above this was a 1,000ft (305m) band of reddish sandstone with the expected neat horizontal lines.

But here’s the catch: Powell estimated that this section was 10,000ft (3,050m) thick by counting the layers of vertical crystalline rock. In reality, it was only 500 feet long (152m). Thousands of feet of rock were missing – it had simply vanished. “How can this be?” he wondered as he named this feature The Great Unconformity.

Geologists now understand that the youngest of the hard, The oldest crystalline rocks are 1.7 billion years old, while the oldest sandstone layers are 550 million years old. This implies that there is a billion-year gap in the geological record. Nobody knows what happened to the rocks in between to this day.  

A global anomaly

While the missing rock is most visible in the Grand Canyon, the phenomenon is widespread.

“It’s one of these features that happens under a lot of people’s feet and they don’t even realise it,” says Stephen Marshak, emeritus professor of geology at the University of Illinois. He explains that if you drill deep enough in the centre of any continent, whether it’s the United States, Siberia, or Europe, you’ll find the two layers of rock involved in this mysterious geological anomaly.

That means that that boundary exists everywhere beneath you – sometimes close to the surface and visible, sometimes kilometres below the surface, but it’s always there. except in mountain ranges where it has been completely removed,” Marshak says. “As a result, it’s widespread, and it’s telling us an extremely important story about Earth’s history.”

As Marshak alluded to, determining what happened during and led to the missing billion years is no easy task. This is due to two factors. The first is that it happened 541 million years ago, right before another inexplicable event – the sudden proliferation of life diversity on Earth.

The Cambrian explosion refers to a period when the oceans went from a smattering of strange and unfamiliar creatures – such as triffid-like leaf-shaped animals and giant steamrollered ovals that continue to defy classification – to an abundance of life, with many of today’s major taxonomic groups present. It happened in the blink of an evolutionary eye, in the span of 13-25 million years. The problem was first identified in the 1840s and proved especially difficult for Charles Darwin. He called it “inexplicable” and lamented in On the Origin of Species “…the difficulty of assigning any good reason for the absence of vast piles of strata rich in fossils beneath the Cambrian system is very great”.  

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