Living near the Rocky Mountains one can hardly fail to be impressed by the grandeur of creation. Such a locale also stimulates the mind’s curiosity about those imposing, silent leviathans arrayed like so many silent sentinels gazing upon the passage of countless centuries.The story of earth itself lies hidden beneath those craggy outcrops. Geologists tell us that the Rockies are mere upstarts relative to earth’s overall history. Only about 70 million years have elapsed since they began to emerge from a Cretaceous era sea called the Western Interior Seaway, at a time when Thunder Lizards (dinosaurs) still roamed the lush tropical landscape.
Some five million years into that prolonged period of mountain building called the Laramide Orogeny a tremendous extinction occurred, wiping out as many as 2/3 of all living species, including those cuddly dinosaurs. Unfazed by this epochal event, the Laramide continued to push up mountain ranges for another 25 million years, like so much toothpaste squeezing out the sides of a leaky tube.
Even then, that spectacular process of sculpting and forming the modern landscape was far from finished. Whole continents were drifting about on a subsurface sea of hot molten plasma. As the Rockies meandered northward along with the rest of the North American continent from somewhere near the equator and drifting into the middle latitudes, a long period of fiery volcanism reddened the skies. This Oligocene period was a time of global transformation, witnessing the birthing of many of today’s great mountain ranges: the Himalayas, Andes, and Alps began to join their slightly older Rocky Mountain cousins.
As new landforms evolved so did the climate in a slow, gradual process of cooling. The predominant tropical/sub-tropical world morphed imperceptibly into a temperate world distinguished by four seasons at the middle and upper latitudes. Grasslands supplanted fern forests and grazing mammals proliferated. The land was ever so slowly beginning to resemble the earth we experience today, but not quite yet in the Rockies where great plumes of ash and rivers of magma rolled across great swaths of land, incinerating everything in their pathway.
By 20 million years ago the pyrotechnics had quieted down considerably in our Rocky Mountains. Still, a time traveler from today would hardly recognize them as mountains. Eons of erosion had buried all but the tips of the highest peaks in a two mile thick blanket of debris. Those mountains would have resembled a high plateau approached by imperceptible slopes, punctuated only by scattered stands of hills and knobs. Lazy streams meandered about, gradually working their way down to sea level. It was hardly the scenic mountain vistas that so impresses the visitor today.
As the volcanoes subsided, a new phenomenon commenced shaping the land. A great general uplift of the entire central western portion of the North American continent began, not unlike a large balloon being inflated under your mattress. The Rockies and all surrounding areas began to rise up, riding on the back of that widespread uplift. Some 10 million years ago this gradual lifting process began to accelerate and in fact continues to this very day. Today’s finest tectonic experts can only speculate as to how or why such uplift is occurring. The net effect of this geologic mystery is that the Rockies were slowly exhumed from their shoulder-high piles of dirt and rock. As the gradients increased, the action of ever faster moving water began to sculpt stunningly beautiful canyons all over today’s Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming. The Great Plains and Colorado Plateau were elevated along with the Rockies exposing great jagged mountain ranges from West Texas into Canada.
Whole ranges of granite extrusions from the Laramide days were systematically carved by rushing streams such as the Colorado, Platte, Green, and Arkansas rivers which were then a hundred times more powerful as compared to today. Those rivers gained such exponential volume and power from the great ice ages that began to come and go periodically over the past couple of million years. During cold phases enormous alpine glaciers appeared which helped carve the higher peaks into dramatic formations. These mountains of ice later melted, often catastrophically, during the warmer periods, sending massive torrents of water down the old stream beds, further sculpting the landscape.
When all the cumulative work of tectonic uplift, fire, and water was completed a new world had appeared. Rich alluvial and volcanic soils spread across the plains and valley floors providing rich grasslands for animals and fertile farmland capable of growing abundant crops. Fabulous mineral belts slashed across the Rockies harboring gold, silver, lead, zinc and other valuable metals. Great seams of high quality coal, oil, and natural gas filled the basins and water for irrigation flowed down from the highlands.
It would seem that a farsighted and provident Creator had carefully prepared this land for its ultimate destiny, namely its occupation and development by mankind. In fact, the story just related is but a very small part of a much larger and more involved tale about deep time. The 70 million years depicted represents less than 2% of the entire time since our planet’s first inception according to the most credible scientific evidence.
There are those who would say, “bah, humbug! the earth cannot be more than seven or eight thousand years old.” I believe that to be an exceedingly narrow interpretation of the Scriptures. Such a literal reading of the Bible not only stretches the evidence of our own senses and observations about the world, worse it devalues the omnipotent power of God by attempting to restrict his creative powers to our poor understanding. Of course, there are others who deny that such a brilliantly planned and executed natural world as we inhabit has any creative or intelligent cause whatsoever. These anti-theists are equally in error. Science, if anything, should open our eyes to many of the marvelous things God has planned and executed in order to provide a perfect environment to serve the needs of mankind. We should never sell short his ingenuity and providence because that is really no better than denying his agency in the world and our existence altogether.
Every time I look out my window at that sublime and awe inspiring creation, manifested in my little corner of the world by those majestic mountains, I cannot help but think of (and thank) a God so great and wise that he thought nothing of investing billions of years to prepare a habitation for our human race that was “just right” for our happiness. After all it was He who so wisely laid the foundations of the world as the Scripture also reminds us. But then He further gave us the gift of faith to see those things which our minds cannot yet understand. He also gave us the gift of reason to pursue those hidden mysteries of nature to the best of our abilities. In the end we must rely on both faith and reason if we are to finally achieve the perfection of our humanity, which should always be our ultimate goal. That too, is a part of God’s great master plan for his creation.
Francis J. Pierson