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Cordilleran Contradictions, 2018 edition

Spent many hours in November sitting in on sessions and perusing posters at the Geological Society of America annual meeting; one goal was to see what’s up with the evolution of elevation of the U.S. Cordillera.

First a quick recap. There are two camps, more or less, on each side of the Cordillera.  The old mountains camp on both sides points mainly to oxygen and hydrogen isotope variations in proxies for precipitation. There are also attempts to retrodeform the lithosphere resulting in thick crust and high elevations. The dominant counterargument is that the paleometeorology used to interpret the isotopic values is flawed. On the young mountain side, classical geologic observations are invoked, including apparent tilting of river channels and the recent incision events in many places. The counterargument to this is that the appearance of a tilted channel may be biased by the depositional environment and that changes in climate can drive incision as easily as uplift. In between in some ways are geophysical observations of the lithosphere; recent changes in the lithosphere seem likely in much of the region, supporting younger mountains, but seem older east of the Southern Rockies.

Well, a meeting in Indianapolis isn’t one to bring out all the western geologists (next year’s meeting in Phoenix is a whole different matter), but a couple of things popped up. Did anything look to change the landscape, either by opening up new vistas or overturning old results? Not that GG discerned.  Below are some notes probably only of interest to the most interested….

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Which Eocene Erosion Surface? (Detailed)

GG has been piddling along though the Sierra (ostensibly to give a campfire talk in Mineral King) and in doing so stared a bit longer at a recent paper on the age of a pediment in the Sierran foothills by Sousa et al. in Geosphere in 2017. In a way this is a callback to concepts from far back in the geologic literature, namely the significance of an “Eocene erosion surface.”

Here, to be brief, low-temperature thermochronology from a low-elevation pediment in the western foothills of the Sierra yields very old ages–in fact, overlapping with the emplacement of plutons in the Sierran crest [this was not a unique observation; Cecil et al., 2006, had a pretty old point in their collection]. Sousa and coauthors model these data and get a cooling to surface conditions by about 40 Ma.  Because these pediments abut noticeable topography, this means there was at least that much local relief in the ancient Sierra. While the pediments had been noticed by others, many suspected a far more recent age.

In some ways, this is old news.  The Eocene sediments in the northern Sierra have long made clear the presence of significant local relief, and many workers had inferred that such relief was probably higher in the southern Sierra (e.g., Wakabayashi and Sawyer, 2001). But the southern Sierra lacked the Eocene sediments necessary to know what the Eocene landscape might have looked like, so this paper opens up a new window for us.

Where does this lead us? Kind of down a rabbit hole only to come up with no strong and useful statement–though perhaps future work could nail things down. This is more a personal attempt to try and grasp what is going on, so profound errors might exist and insights are few.  So, proceed at your own risk….
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Ends or Means? One Paper, Two Views

How should one read a scientific paper?  As presenting conclusions one should take as our best estimate of truth? Or as information one can use to test competing hypotheses?  You might think it must be one or the other, but that is rarely the case.

Consider the just-published paper by Bahadori, Holt and Rasbury entitled “Reconstruction modeling of crustal thickness and paleotopography of western North America since 36 Ma”. From the abstract you might be tempted to say that this paper is solving a problem, in this case the Late Cenozoic paleoelevation history of the western U.S.:

Our final integrated topography model shows a Nevadaplano of ∼3.95 ± 0.3 km average elevation in central, eastern, and southern Nevada, western Utah, and parts of easternmost California. A belt of high topography also trends through northwestern, central, and southeastern Arizona at 36 Ma (Mogollon Highlands). Our model shows little to no elevation change for the Colorado Plateau and the northern Sierra Nevada (north of 36°N) since at least 36 Ma, and that between 36 and 5 Ma, the Sierra Nevada was located at the Pacific Ocean margin, with a shoreline on the eastern edge of the present-day Great Valley.

There is one key word in that paragraph that should make you careful in accepting the results: “model”. What is the model, and how reliable is it?

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Occam’s Cut

In the previous post, we discussed how Occam’s Razor is of little use in some arguments, leading to the principle of least astonishment. But here GG would like to suggest that the shear immensity of geologic time means that Occam sometimes cuts us off from explanations we need to consider.

In this case, let’s talk Laramide.  Orogeny, that is, the creation of the Southern Rocky Mountains between something like 75 and 45 million years ago. The prevailing explanation is that the subducting ocean floor only went down to about 100 km or so and turned flat, interacting with the continent in a way to make mountains far from the plate edge. It is a nice compact explanation.

The thing is, there are a lot of places where slabs today are flat and none of them produce anything of the scale of the Laramide Orogeny.  Closest are the Sierras Pampeanas in Argentina, which are far closer to the trench than the Laramide ranges were, among other difficulties. Even looking over past orogenies yields few plausible rivals–maybe the Alice Springs orogeny in Australia, or if you push things hard, perhaps the Atlas ranges in northern Africa. Or, of course, the Ancestral Rockies in almost the same place as the Laramide. But these are just as cryptic and far less common than all the events that created the Appalachians, or the Urals, or the Caledonides, or the bulk of the Alpine-Himalayan system.

Perhaps, when we encounter oddities in the past, we need to recognize that something unusual happened, meaning that Occam’s bias for parsimony might in fact be precisely the wrong bias. For instance, somebody walks up and says they will flip a coin ten times and it will come up heads.  He asks a passerby for a coin and then does as he says.  Parsimony says this was luck, but perhaps a better explanation is that it is a trick either involving an accomplice or sleight-of-hand [scientists are suckers for sleight-of-hand, as the Amazing Randi often showed].

Given the number of times slabs probably have been flat and given the far rarer production of mountain ranges far from the trench, maybe our bias for parsimony should be relaxed–odd and unusual results might demand more than a single cause. Maybe things were a bit Rube Goldberg-ish for awhile. In a similar vein, some workers are arguing that the impact ending the Cretaceous was so effective not just because of its size but because of the sulfur-rich rocks it hit (this in part a response to the absence of other impacts in causing extinction events and other extinction events seemingly lacking a coincident impact). Arguably something like this has or will emerge in explaining how one branch of the great apes led to humans despite lots of earlier evolutions of animals failing to reach a similar end. We often focus on the positive outcome–the mountains made, the extinction that happened–and miss how often the simple explanation predicts something that didn’t happen (kind of like the old quip that the stock market predicted nine of the past five recessions). We don’t ask, why are there no mountains in Iowa, for instance; we ask, why are there mountains in Colorado? But perhaps we need to ask both.

Occam reminds us to be distrustful of overly-complex explanations, but maybe we need to be careful not to demand too much simplicity. All theories will conflict with some observations in some way; there are always strange things that happen that are coincidences or results of unrelated phenomena.  This reality means that no theory will fit every possible observation; what’s more, we tend to accept more misfits for simpler theories (for instance, the half space cooling model for ocean floor topography is widely accepted despite all the oceanic plateaus and seamounts one has to ignore to get a decent fit). Given that, we should wield the Razor more carefully least we cut off our theoretical nose to spite our parsimonious face….

Oops update

Update 7/29/18: The corrected figures are now officially online.

GG asked readers whether or not an error in a figure drafted 8 years ago should be corrected and the answer was a resounding yes.  So the figures in question have been redrafted and will go to the journal shortly.  If you are curious, the “dynamic” version (uses Flash) can be found here.

To be clear, the intent is simply to remove a mistake in the past and not to update the figure to reflect how it might get drawn today. So if you find things you don’t agree with that reflect scholarship since 2010 or so, don’t expect a correction, but if there are other mistakes substantial enough that somebody might misinterpret things, let GG know.

Retraction Watch was apparently amused at the notion of polling the web to decide whether or not to update the figure and so ran a story on this episode. When the journal puts out the correction, a link will get posted here.

The Reign of Strain Isn’t Very Plain

Having just remembered the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake brings to mind Harry Fielding Reid’s model of elastic rebound for earthquakes developed from observations of that 1906 quake. The idea that the earth’s surface was slowly moving in opposite directions across a fault over a long time period, straining the rocks near the fault until a critical point was reached when the strained rocks would cause the fault to rupture, allowing each side of the fault to “catch up” with the more distant parts of the earth’s surface farther away.

Much later, when plate tectonics was developed, earth scientists could tell what the average velocity of plates were over a couple million years from analysis of magnetic anomalies on the seafloor.  When space-based geodesy came along, first with VLBI and then with GPS, geodesists found that the plates were moving today at a rate equal to that seen over millions of years.  It seemed as though the earth ran at a smooth and even pace.

The combination of ideas would suggest that one hope expressed about a hundred years ago was that faults would be triggered like clockwork. Every so many years, termed the recurrence interval, a fault would rupture with what would be called a characteristic earthquake. Ideally you could then predict the next earthquake if you knew when the last couple had happened.

This ideal view of the earthquake world has gradually unravelled, with a couple of observations in the past decade indicating that there really is something more variable in how geologic strain is created than the elastic rebound model and smooth plate motions would have suggested.

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Well, GG has from time to time pointed out mistakes in graphics in papers, so it is only fair that he share a mistake in his graphics pointed out by others. In Jones et al. (Geosphere, 2011), several panels of Figure 2 place the frontal thrust faults of the fold-thrust belt in the wrong place in Montana (to be clear, this is the upper left part of the full figure seen at right or below):

LaramideMistake  LaramideOrigFig2e

The black line with barbs was to represent the eastern limit of the fold-thrust belt, but GG apparently mistook a high-angle Laramide-style fault for a low-angle thrust connection up to the Helena Salient.  The proper line would be close to the red line in the figure above.

So a question to any readers is, do you think this merits a published correction?

[Updated 10:30 AM MDT 4/7 to show the full extent of the figure; poll added 12:06 pm MDT 4/7]