The Geologic Story of Glacier National Park
Special Bulletin No. 3
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Head, Department of Geology and Geography
Lafayette College*

*Dr. Dyson worked os a ranger-naturalist in Glacier National Park for eight summers starting in 1935.

Until recently a geologist was visualized by most people as a queer sort of fellow who went around the countryside breaking rocks with a little hammer. Fortunately, the general public today has a much clearer picture of the geologist and his science, but there are still many among us who mistakenly feel that geology is something too remote for practical application.

Geology is the science of the Earth. It includes a history of our planet starting with its origin, and a history of the life which has lived upon it. From it we can determine the reason for every feature of the landscape and every rock structure underneath the surface, and we can further learn what processes gave rise to them.

Practically everything to be seen on the face of the Earth owes its origin directly or indirectly to geological processes. These may be grouped into two great categories: Internal forces or agents which raise, lower, bend, and break the Earth's crust; and external, more familiar agents such as water, wind, and ice, which wear away the surface and carry the materials to another place — ultimately to the sea. Let us consider a few of the products of these geologic agents: (1) The soil covering most of the landscape and furnishing the plant products which serve as our food; (2) the solid rock, so conspicuous in all mountain ranges; (3) the hills, the valleys, and the mountains; (4) all the streams, ponds, lakes — even the sea. If you live in a place where man has covered up the rock and the soil, evidence of geological processes is yielded by the buildings themselves, whether they be of stone quarried from the Earth's crust, or of brick made from clay. The stone and brick are supported by a framework of steel originally taken from a mine in the form of iron ore. The concrete and asphalt of the roads came from rocks within the Earth, as did every drop of gasoline which plays so vital a part in world affairs today. Even those commonplaces of American life, the bottle and the "tin" can, are products of geology. As you read this you need look only at your watch or perhaps an item of jewelry which you wear to see something — gold, silver, platinum, a diamond or other gem stone — which is a part of geology.

Thus, from here it is a short step to the realization that a number of geologic processes and agents working over long periods of time have given rise to innumerable features and structures ranging from the loftiest mountains down to the smallest hills and valleys; from the soil which grows our food to the gasoline and coal which feed our industries; from our huge iron ore deposits down to the much smaller, but now no less significant, deposits of uranium.

How is all this related to a national park? Nowhere within our land can the accomplishments of the great geological processes, or their present-day operation, be seen to better advantage than in many of our national parks and monuments. In fact, it is for this reason principally that many of them were established. Notable is Grand Canyon National Park, containing the most spectacular part of the Colorado's mile-deep canyon cut during the past million or so years through a series of rocks which themselves record a billion or more years of Earth history. Mount Rainier is the largest volcano in the United States. On it glaciers are now wearing away materials formerly extruded and piled up to spectacular height by volcanic forces. Crater Lake lies in the sunken throat of a volcano which at one time probably rivaled Rainier in size. In Carlsbad Caverns and Mammoth Cave National Parks are two of the world's largest caverns which clearly demonstrate the tremendous effectiveness of subsurface water in dissolving limestone. Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks and the Badlands National Monument illustrated on a much smaller but no less spectacular scale than the Grand Canyon the wonderful erosive power of running water. In Grand Teton one can see a huge block of the crust which has been raised thousands of feet along a high-angle fault, and at Lassen Peak in California and Craters of the Moon in Idaho there are exhibited some of the most recent volcanic features north of the Rio Grande. Despite Yellowstone's wildlife and fishing it is best known perhaps for its geysers. This brief list is by no means complete, for something of prime geologic interest can be found in almost every national park and monument.

Chart of Geologic Time
(for a chronological order of events, the chart should be read from bottom to top)

Eras, periods and dates in this chart are in accordance with those which have been adopted as official by the National Park Service.

Now we come to Glacier National Park. Within its boundaries there perhaps is exhibited a greater variety of geologic features than in any of the others. Much of the park lies above timberline so that the rocks which comprise its mountains are exposed to view. Held within these superb mountains is an entertaining geologic story which they are anxious and willing to tell us. All we need to do is unlock the door with the key the geologist gives us and then go see for ourselves. Why do the mountains rise so precipitously above the plains? What is that conspicuous black band across the faces of so many of the peaks, and how did it get there? Why are some of the rocks so red? The answers to these and other questions come out as the geologic story unfolds. The American people are interested in this story for they realize that to understand what they see is to increase their enjoyment thousandfold.

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Last Updated: 11-Jul-2008