Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Kaibab-Coconino Plateau

As the Paleozoic Era gave way to the Mesozoic, some 225 million years ago (MYA), an ovoid upwarping of Earth's crust developed in what is now northern Arizona.  Reinforced during the Laramide Orogeny (the formation of the Rockies, 70 MYA), this broad ridge was eventually covered by layers of Mesozoic and Tertiary sediments (both erosional and volcanic).  Late in the Tertiary Period, the Miocene-Pliocene Uplift (stretching from about 15-5 MYA) lifted the entire Colorado Plateau and its rim of mountain ranges another 5000 feet, increasing stream erosion across the Province.  Rising on the west side of the Continental Divide, the Colorado River flowed westward and gradually southward to enter the Sea of Cortez; en route, it crossed northern Arizona, entrenched in the younger sediments that covered the Kaibab-Coconino ridge.  As the Colorado Plateau rose beneath it, the river was forced to cut down through this ridge of Paleozoic rock (and the upper layer of the ancient Precambrian basement that lies beneath it).  Augmented by the wet climate of the Pleistocene (2 to 0.01 MYA), the Colorado thereby sculpted the Grand Canyon, the most spectacular chasm on our planet.

The ridge itself, oriented NNW to SSE, has since been uncovered by erosion.  Streams from its eastern edge drain directly into the Colorado (or into the Little Colorado south of the Grand Canyon), while its northwest flank drains to the Colorado via Kaibab Creek and its southwest flank feeds the Cataract River, another tributary of the Colorado.  The exposed ridge is composed primarily of Kaibab limestone overlying Coconino sandstone; that portion north of the Grand Canyon is known as the Kaibab Plateau while its segment south of the Canyon is referred to as the Coconino Plateau.  The rock strata of the plateau, deposited during the Permian Period, form the upper layers of the Grand Canyon

The Kaibab Plateau rises to elevations that exceed 9200 feet, supporting a rich forest of fir, spruce and aspen, giving way to ponderosa pine and then pinon-juniper woodlands at lower elevations.  The Coconino Plateau is 7400 feet above sea level at the south rim of the Grand Canyon and gradually lowers toward the west, south and east; it is covered primarily by ponderosa pine parklands.  South of the Coconino Plateau, the landscape is dominated by the high peaks and scattered cones of the San Francisco Volcanic Field, including Humphreys Peak (12,633 feet), the highest point in Arizona.