Map, Location of the Pacific Mountain Regions
Pacific Mountain System
Sierra Nevada Region
Cascade Range Region

Pacific Mountain System:
This region is one of the most geologically young and tectonically active in North America. The generally rugged, mountainous landscape of this province provides evidence of ongoing mountain-building. The Pacific Mountain System straddles the boundaries between several of Earth's moving plates -- the source of the monumental forces required to build the sweeping arc of mountains that extends from Alaska to the southern reaches of South America. This province includes the active and sometimes deadly volcanoes of the Cascade Range and the young, steep mountains of the Pacific Border and the Sierra Nevada. Although the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Range form a nearly continuous barrier along the western edge of the United States, the two ranges really have very little in common. They have been and continue to be formed by quite different geological forces and processes.

Sierra Nevadas Region:
The rocks that form the backbone of the Sierra Nevada are mostly granitic rocks that formed during the Mesozoic Era, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. At that time, an arc-shaped chain of volcanoes, similar to the present-day Cascade volcanic arc, erupted where the Sierra Nevada now stands. Rising through older Paleozoic rock, molten rock erupted at the surface as lava, but most solidified deep within the earth, forming the gray granitic rocks familiar to any Sierra traveler. Although from a distance the Sierran rock looks quite similar, it is actually made up of many individual rock bodies that formed from repeated intrusions of magma over many millions of years.

Even as they grew, erosion was wearing away these Mesozoic Era volcanoes. By Late Cretaceous time, about 70 million years ago, the once-deep granitic rocks began to be exposed at the Earth's surface. By a few tens of millions of years ago, so much of the upper part had worn away that the surface of the ancient range had a low relief of just a few thousand feet.

It wasn't until quite recently, geologically-speaking, that the Sierra Nevada range as we know it today began to grow. During the Miocene Epoch, less than 20 million years ago, the continental crust east of the Sierra Nevada began to stretch in an east-west direction. The crust broke into a series of north-south-trending valleys and mountain ranges -- the beginning of the Basin and Range province.

Less than five million years ago, the range that we now know as the Sierra Nevada began to rise along its eastern margin. Through a combination of uplift of the Sierran block and down-dropping of the area to the east, the Sierra rose upward. Rising far more steeply to the east than the west, the entire Sierra Nevada can be thought of as an enormous tilted fault block with a long, gentle slope westward to California's Central Valley and steep eastern slope.

Not long after the Sierra uplift began, the Earth cooled, marking the beginning of the Pleistocene (Ice Age) Epoch. Glaciers grew in the Sierra highlands and made their way down former stream channels, carving U-shaped valleys. The sheer walls and hanging valleys of Yosemite National Park are a product of this chilly past.

Cascade Range Region:
Where the Sierra Nevada ends a chain of explosive volcanic centers, the Cascade volcanoes<, begins. The Cascades Province forms an arc-shaped band extending from British Columbia to Northern California, roughly parallel to the Pacific coastline. Within this region, 13 major volcanic centers lie in sequence like a string of explosive pearls. Although the largest volcanoes like Mount St. Helens get the most attention, the Cascades is really made up of a band of thousands of very small, short-lived volcanoes that have built a platform of lava and volcanic debris. Rising above this volcanic platform are a few strikingly large volcanoes that dominate the landscape.

The Cascades volcanoes define the Pacific Northwest section of the "Ring of Fire", a fiery array of volcanoes that rim the Pacific Ocean. As if volcanic hazards were not enough, the Ring of Fire is also infamous for its frequent earthquakes. In order to understand the origins of this concentrated band of Earth hazards we have to take a peek beneath our feet.

Beneath the Cascades, a dense oceanic plate plunges beneath the North American Plate; a process known as subduction. As the oceanic slab sinks deep into the Earth's interior beneath the continental plate, high temperatures and pressures allow water molecules locked in the minerals of solid rock to escape. The water vapor rises into the pliable mantle above the subducting plate, causing some of the mantle to melt. This newly formed magma rises toward the Earth's surface to erupt, forming a chain of volcanoes (the Cascade Range) above the subduction zone. The Cascade Range made its first appearance 36 million years ago, but the major peaks that rise up from today's volcanic centers were born within the last 1.6 million years (Pleistocene). More than 3,000 vents erupted during the most recent volcanic episode that began 5 million years ago. Are there more eruptions in our future? As long as subduction continues, new Cascade volcanoes will continue to rise.

-- Excerpt from:
USGS/NPS Geology in the Parks Website, August 2001

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