Telling time at Grand Canyon National Park

This work by the National Park Service summarizes the geochronology and shares insights on the geology of rock units exposed in Grand Canyon. The 54 page report contains 35 figures and 10 tables.
Executive Summary
Grand Canyon National Park is all about time and timescales. Time is the currency of our daily life, of history, and of biological evolution. Grand Canyon’s beauty has inspired explorers, artists, and poets. Behind it all, Grand Canyon’s geology and sense of timelessness are among its most prominent and important resources.
Grand Canyon has an exceptionally complete and well-exposed rock record of Earth’s history. It is an ideal place to gain a sense of geologic (or deep) time. A visit to the South or North rims, a hike into the canyon of any length, or a trip through the 277-mile (446-km) length of Grand Canyon are awe-inspiring experiences for many reasons, and they often motivate us to look deeper to understand how our human timescales of hundreds and thousands of years overlap with Earth’s many timescales reaching back millions and billions of years.
This report summarizes how geologists tell time at Grand Canyon, and the resultant “best” numeric ages for the canyon’s strata based on recent scientific research. By best, we mean the most accurate and precise ages available, given the dating techniques used, geologic constraints, the availability of datable material, and the fossil record of Grand Canyon rock units. This paper updates a previously-published compilation of best numeric ages (Mathis and Bowman 2005a; 2005b; 2007) to incorporate recent revisions in the canyon’s stratigraphic nomenclature and additional numeric age determinations published in the scientific literature.
From bottom to top, Grand Canyon’s rocks can be ordered into three “sets” (or primary packages), each with an overarching story. The Vishnu Basement Rocks were once tens of miles deep as North America’s crust formed via collisions of volcanic island chains with the pre-existing continent between 1,840 and 1,375 million years ago. The Grand Canyon Supergroup contains evidence for early single-celled life and represents basins that record the assembly and breakup of an early supercontinent between 729 and 1,255 million years ago. The Layered Paleozoic Rocks encode stories, layer by layer, of dramatic geologic changes and the evolution of animal life during the Paleozoic Era (period of ancient life) between 270 and 530 million years ago.
In addition to characterizing the ages and geology of the three sets of rocks, we provide numeric ages for all the groups and formations within each set. Nine tables list the best ages along with information on each unit’s tectonic or depositional environment, and specific information explaining why revisions were made to previously published numeric ages. Photographs, line drawings, and diagrams of the different rock formations are included, as well as an extensive glossary of geologic terms to help define important scientific concepts.
The three sets of rocks are separated by rock contacts called unconformities formed during long periods of erosion. This report unravels the Great Unconformity, named by John Wesley Powell 150 years ago, and shows that it is made up of several distinct erosion surfaces. The Great Nonconformity is between the Vishnu Basement Rocks and the Grand Canyon Supergroup. The Great Angular Unconformity is between the Grand Canyon Supergroup and the Layered Paleozoic Rocks. Powell’s term, the Great Unconformity, is used for contacts where the Vishnu Basement Rocks are directly overlain by the Layered Paleozoic Rocks. The time missing at these and other unconformities within the sets is also summarized in this paper—a topic that can be as interesting as the time recorded.
Our goal is to provide a single up-to-date reference that summarizes the main facets of when the rocks exposed in the canyon’s walls were formed and their geologic history. This authoritative and readable summary of the age of Grand Canyon rocks will hopefully be helpful to National Park Service staff including resource managers and park interpreters at many levels of geologic understanding; the glossary helps explain geoscience terms and the references cited section provides up-to-date peer reviewed resources for deeper inquiry

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