Grand Canyon: Solving Earth's Grandest Puzzle

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9780131479890: Grand Canyon: Solving Earth's Grandest Puzzle

Vast and majestic, the Grand Canyon represents one of science’s most challenging puzzles: How did this massive canyon come to be? This is the story of the search for the answers, and the first account of the consensus geologists have reached in the last few years.

A scientific detective tale packed with colorful characters, Grand Canyon follows the explorers, adventurers, and geologists whose efforts led to the understanding of the canyon’s mysteries. Modern scientists have revealed that the Colorado River once ran in the opposite direction—and for many years flowed hundreds of feet beneath the ground. These efforts also led directly to the discovery of tectonic plates, one of the most important advancements in the history of geology. An eloquent, breathtaking narrative, Grand Canyon is a fascinating true story that is as epic as its subject.

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From the Back Cover:

The centerpiece of scenic grandeur in the American West is the Grand Canyon, one of the great natural wonders of the world. How it came to be has captured the imagination not only of millions of visitors to the canyon, but for over 135 years, the best American geologists as well. They recognized that the Colorado River carved this scenic masterpiece, but exactly when and how it did so eluded them. Only in the last few years has a consensus begun to emerge and now, for the first time, author James Lawrence Powell tells the fascinating story of how the mystery came to be solved.

Not only have geologists discovered the reasons for the majestic width and depth of the Canyon, they have found that at one time the Colorado River ran through it in the opposite direction. At another time, hundreds of feet of gravel buried an ancestor of today's Colorado River. Then erosion removed the gravel and resurrected the river, in what James Lawrence Powell has dubbed the Lazarus Theory.

Readers of this book will discover and rediscover a great American river—one of astonishing energy and power, a majestic rival to the celebrated Mississippi. Beginning in the Colorado Rockies, the river cuts its way first across the Colorado Plateau and then the Basin and Range Province, finally to reach the sea in the Gulf of California. This river of "liquid sandpaper" today sometimes drops 15 feet per mile; by contrast, the gentle Mississippi rolls across the plains to the Gulf of Mexico at a gradient of a few inches per mile. Ultimately, the waters of the Colorado are not only key to understanding the geology of the West, but also to the management of our most precious western resource.

What makes James Lawrence Powell's narrative so compelling, apart from the grandeur of its subject, is the richness of the characters who participated in this detective story. John Wesley Powell, the most famous of the nineteenth-century Canyon expedition leaders, the man for whom Lake Powell is named, discovered key geologic principles that helped to crack the puzzle. His two brilliant assistants, Grove Karl Gilbert and Clarence Dutton, built on Major Powell's findings to make historic scientific advances. Indeed, James Lawrence Powell shows how Dutton's work in the Grand Canyon led directly to our modern understanding of Continental Drift and Plate Tectonics. Twentieth-century geology of the Canyon culminated at a meeting in 2000 on the Canyon rim at which geologists debated the Lazarus Theory and other ideas far into the night. The solution on which they converged resonated around the world.

The 16 pages of photographs Powell collected for this sweeping tale bring to life the people and places of the story. The maps and geological time charts are useful references as to when and where the action took place. James Lawrence Powell has created a work of nonfiction that is an eloquent, educating, and exciting ride down to the bedrock of the American West and its most spectacular sight.

Praise for Grand Canyon

"The Grand Canyon's beauty, grandeur, and striking form have made it one of the greatest tourist attractions in the U.S., and also one of the greatest intellectual challenges to geologists. James Powell's exciting account of the Canyon's development is worthy of the excitement that the canyon itself inspires."

—Jared Diamond, Professor of Geography, UCLA, and Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse

An engaging and lucid account of one of geology's greatest monuments. The story of how the Colorado River cut the Grand Canyon turns out to be a remarkable detective story, complete with red herrings and innocent suspects. The tale of the Grand Canyon encapsulates features of the growth in our knowledge over the whole of the earth sciences."

—Richard Fortey, FRS, Natural History Museum, London, author of Trilobite! and Earth

"Grand Canyon reads like a detective novel as Powell traces the work of the generations of geologists trying to understand our most majestic landscape. In the process, his fascinating book reveals not just how the Grand Canyonhas taken shape, but our planet as a whole."

—Carl Zimmer, author of Soul Made Flesh and Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea

"John Wesley Powell, the pioneer explorer of the Grand Canyon, believed that science could reveal a deeper history of America, one that we should know for our own survival. As this excellent book shows, that prophecy has come true: modern science indeed has revealed just how fragile our civilization is—as vulnerable as the rocks that water has relentlessly washed away in the Canyon. A clear, dramatic, and humbling story of continental discovery."

—Donald Worster, Hall Distinguished Professor of American History, University of Kansas

"As important to the professional scientist as it is to those who simply are bewitched by the Grand Canyon. An expertly woven tale of scientific intrigue."

—Richard A. Young, Dept. of Geological Sciences, SUNY College


Copyright Pearson Education. All rights reserved.

About the Author:

James Lawrence Powell is Executive Director of the National Physical Science Consortium, and former Director and President of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. He taught geology for twenty years at Oberlin College, where he also served as Acting President. The author of Night Comes to the Cretaceous and Mysteries of Terra Firma, he lives in Buellton, California with his wife, five horses, three cats, two dogs, and a burro.


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