Geology rocks at Vail Symposium
Vail, CO Colorado
VAIL, Colorado – Everything west from Vail Pass to Dow Junction was frozen under one glacier 35,000 years ago.
This was the last period when glaciers covered the globe and filled the valleys in Colorado’s central mountains, called the Pinedale Glaciation Period. Although the ice has since melted, state geologist Vince Matthews still senses its presence.
On Tuesday, he and colleague Pedro Lucha led a driving tour organized by the Vail Symposium from Vail through Minturn to Leadville, Mosquito Pass and down to Lake Dillon. The route followed the geological footprints where glaciers once lived.
Partially responsible for Vail’s world-renowned ski slopes, rivers and high-altitude lakes are the glaciers that literally entombed this region.
“There was once a quarter-mile of ice above our heads,” Matthews said from the parking lot of the Vail Mountain School.
The rock face, right above the neighborhood behind the Vail Mountain School, is evidence of an icy past. In March 1997, six boulders weighing more than ten tons each broke from the canyon rim and rolled 800 to 1,000 feet into the valley – one crashed right through a living room.
How boulders managed to reach such heights in the first place is due to the glacier, which deposited boulders and other debris when it receded. Also, the cliffs are so steep because the glacier sheared the canyon walls when it melted, Matthews told the group.
This state looks different through the eyes of a geologist, and Matthews reads the landscape like a history book. The narrow, serrated ridge that winds down the backbone of a mountain, called an arete, is a fence that once separated two adjacent glaciers. He sees Homestake Creek, outside of Red Cliff, as a well-worn groove made from the water that’s been flowing through it for millions of years and sees the inland sea that sculpted the Lionshead rock formation millions of years ago.
Likewise, Turquoise Lake in Leadville is all that remains from a glacier that once stretched from the Continental Divide to the Arkansas River. The ridge that cradles the east side of the lake is a textbook example of an unsorted deposit of sediments from glacier ice, called a moraine. This natural wall created the lake and diverted water through one small channel. Without the glacier’s deposit, engineers wouldn’t have been able to dam the lake creating the reservoir, which provides water to the Front Range.
“You have a classic moraine at Turquoise Lake,” Matthews said, “It doesn’t get any better in the world.”
He saw images of Turquoise Lake in his first geology class at the University of Georgia but first became interested in geology in 1959 as a 17-year-old camp counselor at a Boy Scout camp in New Mexico, where he taught campers to pan for gold. It was his first paid job, and he was hooked on rocks.
“I wanted to be a prospector and travel the west with a burro and pan for gold,” Matthews said. “And I never looked back.”
Matthews received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geology from the University of Georgia and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Cruz. For two decades, he worked in the natural-resource industry as an executive for companies such as Union Pacific. He returned to academia in 1997 and joined the Colorado Geological Survey in 2000. He was appointed state geologist and director of the Colorado Geological Survey in March 2004.
Studying Colorado’s glacial history can provide insight into the state of the world’s existing glaciers.
On the whole global-warming debate, Matthews remains skeptical. To him, there are large discrepancies in data taken from rising tide levels and ice core samples. He does not dispute that temperatures have been rising but is not convinced that it is due to the industrial revolution.
“I don’t know a scientist who doesn’t think that the Earth is warming,” Matthew said. “But some data, in my view, is science misconduct and bad science that has been touted as fact.”
While many glaciers around the world have been retreating in recent decades, one glacier in the Himalaya Mountains appears to be growing, Matthews pointed out. The Pinedale Glaciations and our current temperate world form one period in the many cycles of warm and cool periods that have taken place in the past 450,000 years, well before the industrial revolution.
Intern Stephen Kasica can be reached at 970-777-3190 and followed on Twitter at: @stephenkasica.
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