Mountain Building

The two primary mechanisms for mountain-building are volcanic and tectonic activity. Volcanoes are constructed from lava and ash, which begin within the earth as magma. Tectonic activity causes plates to collide, heaving up fold mountains, and to pull apart and crack, forming fault-block mountain ranges.

a. Plate Tectonics. The massive slabs composing the outer layer are called tectonic plates. These plates are made up of portions of lighter, granitic continental crust, and heavier, basaltic oceanic crust attached to slabs of the rigid upper mantle. Floating slowly over the more malleable asthenosphere, their movement relative to each other creates earthquakes, volcanoes, ocean trenches, and mountain ridge systems.

b. Mountain Structure. The different horizontal and vertical stresses that create mountains usually produce complex patterns. Each type of stress produces a typical structure, and most mountains can be described in terms of these structures.

(1) Dome Mountains. A simple upward bulge of the crust forms dome mountains such as the Ozarks of Arkansas and Missouri, New York's Adirondacks, the Olympics of Washington, and the High Uintahs of Utah. They are usually the result of the upward movement of magma and the folding of the rock layers overhead. Erosion may strip away the overlying layers, exposing the central igneous core.

(2) Fault-Block Mountains. Faulting, or cracking of the crust into large chunks, often accompanies upwarp, which results in fault-block mountains. Many forms are created by the motion of these chunks along these faults.

(a) The ranges of the desert country of California, Nevada, and Utah provide the clearest display of faulting. The breakage extends to the surface and often during earthquakes—caused by slippage between the blocks—fresh scarps many feet high develop.

(b) Sometimes a block is faulted on both sides and rises or falls as a unit. More often, however, it is faulted on one side only. The Tetons of Wyoming and the Sierra Nevada display this—along the single zone of faults the range throws up impressive steep scarps, while on the other side the block bends but does not break, leaving a gentler slope from the base of the range to the crest. An example of a dropped block is California's Death Valley, which is below sea level and could not have been carved by erosion.

(3) Fold Mountains. Tectonic forces, in which continental plates collide or ride over each other, have given rise to the most common mountain form—fold mountains. Geologists call folds geosynclines. Upward folded strata are anticlines and downward folds are synclines. When erosion strips down the overburden of rock from folded mountain ranges, the oldest, central core is all that remains. The Alps and the Appalachians are examples of fold mountains. When the squeezing of a range is intense the rocks of the mountain mass first fold but then may break, and parts of the rocks are pushed sideways and override neighboring formations. This explains why older rocks are often found perched on top of younger ones. Isolated blocks of the over thrust mass may form when erosion strips away links connecting them with their place of origin. Almost every range of folded mountains in the world exhibits an over thrust of one sort or another.

(4) Volcanic Mountains. Along convergent plate boundaries volcanic activity increases. As it is forced underneath an overriding neighbor, continental crust melts and turns to magma within the mantle. Since it is less dense than the surrounding material it rises and erupts to form volcanoes.

(a) These volcanoes are found in belts, which correspond to continental margins around the world. The best known is the "Ring of Fire" encircling the Pacific Ocean from Katmai in Alaska through the Cascades (Mount Rainier and Mount Saint Helens) down through Mexico's Popocatepetl to the smokes of Tierra del Fuego. This belt then runs west down the Aleutian chain to Kamchatka, south to the volcanoes of Japan and the Philippines, and then east through New Guinea into the Pacific. Smaller volcanic belts are found along the Indonesian-SE Asian arc, the Caucasus region, and the Mediterranean.

(b) Volcanic activity also arises at boundaries where two plates are moving away from each other, creating deep rifts and long ridges where the crust has cracked apart and magma wells up to create new surface material. Examples of this are the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which has created Iceland and the Azores, and the Rift Valley of East Africa with Kilimanjaro's cone.

(5) Complex Mountains. Most ranges are complex mountains with portions that have been subject to several processes. A block may have been simply pushed upward without tilting with other portions folded, domed, and faulted, often with a sprinkling of volcanoes. In addition, these processes occur both at the macro and the micro level. One massive fold can make an entire mountain peak; however, there are folds measured by a rope length, and tiny folds found within a handhold. A mountain front may be formed from a single fault, but smaller faults that form ledges and gullies may also be present.

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