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Geology of the Sierra Nevada

Geology of the Sierra Nevada: Revised Edition

Mary Hill
Copyright Date: 2006
Edition: 2
Pages: 468
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    Geology of the Sierra Nevada
    Book Description:

    Writing with verve and clarity, Mary Hill tells the story of the magnificent Sierra Nevada-the longest, highest, and most spectacular mountain range in the contiguous United States. Hill takes us from the time before the land which would be California even existed, through the days of roaring volcanoes, violent earthquakes, and chilling ice sheets, to the more recent history of the Sierra's early explorers and the generations of adventuresome souls who followed. The author introduces the rocks of the Sierra Nevada, which tell the mountains' tale, and explains how nature's forces, such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, faulting, erosion, and glaciation formed the range's world-renowned scenery and mineral wealth, including gold. For thirty years, the first edition ofGeology of the Sierra Nevadahas been the definitive guide to the Sierra Nevada's geological history for nature lovers, travelers, hikers, campers, and armchair explorers. This new edition offers new chapters and sidebars and incorporates the concept of plate tectonics throughout the text.* Written in easy-to-understand language for a wide audience. * Gives detailed information on where to view outstanding Sierra Nevada geology in some of the world's most beloved natural treasures and national parks, including Yosemite. * Provides specific information on places to see glaciers and glacial deposits, caves, and exhibits of gold mines and mining equipment, many from Gold Rush times. * Superbly illustrated with 117 new color illustrations, 16 halftones, 39 line illustrations, and 12 maps, and also features an easy-to-use, interactive key for identifying rocks and a glossary of geological terms.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93694-2
    Subjects: Geology
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vii-viii)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS (pp. ix-ix)

    THE SIERRA NEVADA is the longest, highest, and most spectacular mountain range in the “lower 48” (fig. 1). It is a mighty mountain range, tall and long, with spectacular canyons, world-famous waterfalls, and precipitous peaks. How it got that way is the subject of the book, as it was of the first edition.

    Why a second edition? For one thing, science moves forward. Much more is known about the story of the Sierra Nevada today than we knew 30 years ago. “But aren’t the rocks the same?” a friend asked. Yes, of course they are, but some were never studied...


    The following do-it-yourself key with supplemental tables and maps allows you to identify most of the rocks you encounter in the Sierra. For easy use, it is created like a botany key. Because it uses both the appearance of the rock and, in some cases, the appearance of the Sierran outcrop from which it came, the key is not usable in other areas, although similar ones could be constructed for any mountain range.

    Materials you need in order to use this key are a hand lens or field magnifier, preferably 10 power or more; a small amount of vinegar or...


    GEOLOGY IS THE study of the Earth. Its ultimate purpose is to discover all there is to know about what the Earth is made of, how it is arranged, and how it got that way. The reconstruction of Earth’s history is one of geology’s principal aims: the story of the Earth itself through time and of all its living creatures. Because the Earth is one huge rock, it is from rocks that we have learned what we know about Earth. Even though human use of the Earth’s resources is as old as humans themselves, geology, like many sciences, dates back...

  7. CHAPTER 2 THE RANGE TODAY (pp. 77-93)

    THE SIERRA NEVADA—the long backbone of California—is steeper on the eastern side than on the western, giving a bird’s-eye view of the range a rakish aspect, an aspect that is undergoing constant change. Clouds passing over the range are intercepted by the range itself, causing rain and snow to fall on the western side, leaving the eastern side dry. Turbulent rivers, most flowing toward the sea, have cut deep canyons on the western side (fig. 6), where the slopes are so thickly forested that struggling through them on foot is daunting. The tilted range is so steep and...

  8. CHAPTER 3 BEING FIRST (pp. 95-127)

    NINETEENTH-CENTURY GEOLOGIST Clarence King dreamed of being the first to climb the highest mountain in the United States: Mount Whitney, in the Sierra Nevada (table 9). (This was before the United States owned Alaska, which has the highest peak in North America.) He helped give Whitney its name but never did succeed in being the first to stand on its top.

    King was an explorer who climbed peaks and mapped regions where no white person had gone before, but likely he was not the first to be there, nor was he the first man, woman, or child to cross the...


    A HUNDRED YEARS after King and Cotter’s wild adventure in the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada, and Brewer’s careful explorations, geographers knew the shape of the range and the locations of its high peaks, and geologists had a good idea of its rocks and how old they were, but they still did not know why the Sierra was where it was or how it got there, or for that matter, why any of the Earth’s mountain ranges are where they are.

    Science is modern mythology. It seeks to explain the “why” of the world. To do so, we must...

  10. CHAPTER 5 SEAS OF LONG AGO (pp. 149-175)

    THE FIRST FOUR billion years of the region that has become the Sierra Nevada is veiled, as the rock record of the Earth’s beginnings does not appear in these mountains. The first pages of Sierran history that remain for us to read begin in rocks laid down about 540 million years ago (Cambrian Period). Other, earlier pages endure in the structurally related White and Inyo Mountains to the east, which probably reflect happenings in the Sierra; but in the Sierra Nevada proper, this is the oldest now known. These old rock pages hold the story of the mountains—of their...

  11. CHAPTER 6 GREAT IS GRANITE (pp. 177-209)

    “GREAT IS GRANITE, and the Yo-Semite is its prophet!” wrote the Reverend Thomas Starr King in 1860 (King 1962). And surely, if you walk the high country or the deep canyons, you do get an overwhelming impression of granite—of the granite that is the very heart of the mountains.

    Sierran granite—more properly called granitic rock because you must include granite and all its relatives—is part of a vast field of rock that underlies the mountains. It is exposed along the crests and extends downward an unknown distance into the Earth.

    Geologists call such a field a “batholith,”...


    HIDDEN WITHIN THE mountains are many treasures valued by humans, among them that breaker of saints and changer of history: gold. Compared with the rocks of the Earth, deposits of precious metals are very scarce. They are oddities of nature, and only human fascination with them has transformed them into treasure. More to be treasured is the water the range’s very existence pulls from the sky to make the western Sierra a well-watered breadbasket, leaving the land to the east thirsty.

    Gold is in the sea as well as in most rocks. In igneous rocks, the amount of gold averages...


    IF YOU WERE planning a hike in the Sierra of 100 million years ago (of course, you would not be, because humans did not exist yet) you might have been surprised to find you had no steep, lofty peaks to ascend, as Clarence King did. The mountains we know today do not look like those of yesteryear.

    About 130 million years ago, in the early part of the Cretaceous Period after the gold veins had formed, the Sierra Nevada entered a phase of deep erosion. At that time, the western sea had its shores within the Great Central Valley, as...

  14. CHAPTER 9 DAYS OF FIRE (pp. 259-287)

    IN 1740, the Itelmen natives on the Russian Kamchatka Peninsula told naturalist Georg Steller exactly how volcanoes work. And they should know; the peninsula is one of Earth’s most volcanic regions.Gomuls—Earth ghosts who lurked in volcanic craters—caused eruptions, they said. To feed themselves, they would leave the volcano and seize ocean whales with their spear-shaped fingers and haul them back to the crater to eat. Their cooking bonfires sent up clouds of smoke and vapor, while boiling whale fat streamed down the volcano’s slopes, and whale bones flew through the air.

    This explanation sounds mythological to us...

  15. CHAPTER 10 DAYS OF ICE (pp. 289-319)

    IN THE WORLDWIDE Great Ice Age that ended a few thousand years ago, glaciers pushed their way across Canada and much of eastern North America. In the West, they covered the northern parts of Washington, Idaho, and Montana. The Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Nevada, and the Cascades had, by then, become high enough barriers that the sheets did not cross them; but these ranges were also high enough and cold enough to accumulate glaciers of their own.

    These mountain glaciers of the West, although they existed at the same time as the great continental ice sheets to the north and...

  16. CHAPTER 11 MONO LAKE: THE “DEAD SEA” OF THE WEST (pp. 321-333)

    MONO LAKE IS one of the world’s most remarkable lakes. It is not a former lake or a prehistoric lake that no longer exists, or a “dead sea”; it is a living lake, very elderly, but living. It is a lake that has been present for at least 760,000 years without drying up. But it is in danger now.

    Few American lakes attain such longevity. Lake Tahoe, like Mono, is one of the few. The Great Lakes, although dating from the Great Ice Age, are comparative youngsters at only 13,000 years old, while Crater Lake, Oregon, filled with water in...

  17. CHAPTER 12 THE YOSEMITE “PROBLEM” (pp. 335-361)

    EXCEPT FOR EVOLUTION, few geological controversies have engaged the American public as did the argument over the origin of Yosemite’s scenery. Certainly, Yosemite is special, but what made it so? What agencies carved its stupendous cliffs laced with spectacular waterfalls? Where is the rest of Half Dome? These are still intriguing questions, but in 1870 they were burning.

    On one side of the controversy was Josiah Whitney, state geologist of California and a man with a long list of scientific credentials. On the other was John Muir, with half as much college behind him as Whitney, virtually no professional scientific...

  18. CHAPTER 13 THE MOUNTAINS TREMBLE (pp. 363-392)

    SOME OF THE theories we have today may seem as ridiculous tomorrow as the idea that earthquakes are caused by a great turtle shaking the Earth on its back. Such an idea of the Earth was once held by millions of people. We call it primitive; yet our current theories may be just as far from the truth.

    In our present view, the Earth quakes because of the activity of Earth’s tectonic plates, particularly on plate boundaries. Yet the Sierra is a long way from any plate boundary. It is the final western range in the Basin and Range province,...

  19. GLOSSARY (pp. 395-422)
  21. QUOTATION REFERENCES (pp. 427-429)
  22. FIGURE REFERENCES (pp. 431-434)
  23. PLATE CREDITS (pp. 435-436)
  24. INDEX (pp. 437-453)
  25. Back Matter (pp. 454-457)