Geology Chair Receives Grant to Study the Evolution of the Rocky Mountains

Posted February 12th, 2010 at 4:26 pm.

photo of Wyoming landscape

Geology Chair Arlo Weil recently received a $230,000, three-year grant from the National Science Foundation to study the evolution of the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming.

The research will take place in central Wyoming. It builds upon work done by Weil and co-principal investigator Adolph Yonkee, of Weber State University, over the past six years in the more western Rocky Mountains region of the state.

Weil and Yonkee’s earlier work is featured in, and Weil appears on the cover of, the January/February issue of the Geological Society of America Bulletin, one of the premier professional journals in the earth sciences.

“Our early research dealt with older tectonic events. Now we are moving into younger Laramide-style events where the deep crustal material pops vertically straight up and produces the classic grandeur that people envision when they think of the Rocky Mountains.”

Weil, Yonkee, and students from both schools will be analyzing Triassic red beds (named for the iron oxide found in the rock) and Jurassic limestone deposits found in the mountains to better understand the evolution of the Rocky Mountain system in terms of its large-scale tectonic evolution.

“One of the interesting things about the mountains in this range is that they come in a variety of orientations,” says Weil. “If you imagine their formation occurring through classic tectonic movement, you’d expect to see more uniformity in the trend of the mountain system. All the different trends and orientations that are observed in the Rocky Mountains is one of the core questions we are investigating.”

In addition to the more academic pursuit of trying to better understand the formation of the mountain system, the research has some very practical implications.

Wyoming is one of the biggest coal-producing states, and the area being researched has been discussed as a site for possible carbon dioxide sequestration, which some see as a way for the state to become “carbon neutral.”

“They’re talking about taking this carbon dioxide and pumping it into the core space deep within the earth’s crust. But you don’t want it to leak and move through the basement rocks and start to contaminate ground water systems used for drinking and agriculture. So understanding the network of fractures in the crust—and importantly the movement of fluids through this crust—will give vital information on the potential mobility of carbon if they do start to do the sequestration,” says Weil.

Although a lot of existing data needs to be collected and synthesized for the research, nothing can take the place of the field work that will happen over the summer.

“The only way to understand what sort of physical deformation occurred over time is to go out there and closely examine the rock formations to look for tell-tale physical signs,” says Weil. “I love doing the field work and being able to bring students along. At most schools this kind of experience is reserved for graduate students. It’s one of the things that sets Bryn Mawr apart and makes being a part of this community so special.”

Comments are closed.