Formation of the Grand Canyon 5 to 6 million years ago through integration of older palaeocanyons

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Abstract

The timing of formation of the Grand Canyon, USA, is vigorously debated. In one view, most of the canyon was carved by the Colorado River relatively recently, in the past 5–6 million years. Alternatively, the Grand Canyon could have been cut by precursor rivers in the same location and to within about 200 m of its modern depth as early as 70–55 million years ago. Here we investigate the time of formation of four out of five segments of the Grand Canyon, using apatite fission-track dating, track-length measurements and apatite helium dating: if any segment is young, the old canyon hypothesis is falsified. We reconstruct the thermal histories of samples taken from the modern canyon base and the adjacent canyon rim 1,500 m above, to constrain when the rocks cooled as a result of canyon incision. We find that two of the three middle segments, the Hurricane segment and the Eastern Grand Canyon, formed between 70 and 50 million years ago and between 25 and 15 million years ago, respectively. However, the two end segments, the Marble Canyon and the Westernmost Grand Canyon, are both young and were carved in the past 5–6 million years. Thus, although parts of the canyon are old, we conclude that the integration of the Colorado River through older palaeocanyons carved the Grand Canyon, beginning 5–6 million years ago.

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Figure 1: Map of Grand Canyon.
Figure 2: Thermal constraints.
Figure 3: Proposed palaeocanyon depths and gradients.
Figure 4: Westernmost Grand Canyon.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by NSF Grant EAR-1242028 from the Tectonics Program. Support for our whitewater raft facility was from the NSF EAR Instrumentation and Facilities Program. We acknowledge a research agreement with Grand Canyon National Park that has allowed river corridor access. Formal reviews by P. Reiners and R. Ingersoll, and an informal review by W. R. Dickinson, helped improve the paper.

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K.E.K. did the writing and data analysis. J.P.L., S.A.K., M.F., D.L.S. and J.W.R. did the thermochronology data analysis. R.S.C., L.J.C., R.A.Y., G.L. and L.S.B. did the geology data analysis.

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Correspondence to Karl E. Karlstrom.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Karlstrom, K., Lee, J., Kelley, S. et al. Formation of the Grand Canyon 5 to 6 million years ago through integration of older palaeocanyons. Nature Geosci 7, 239–244 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2065

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