Carded: We might now know Grand Canyon’s actual age

That's really old: Testing done in caves along the Grand Canyon has led to an increasing of the believed age of the western section of the canyon, pegging it at around 17 million years old.
That's really old: Testing done in caves along the Grand Canyon has led to an increasing of the believed age of the western section of the canyon, pegging it at around 17 million years old.Courtesy Realbrvhrt
Regular readers of the Buzz may have noticed that there are some subjects I just can’t let slide by without comment, primarily anything having to do with Vikings, smoking, steroids and my all-time favorite topic, the Grand Canyon.

And news broke today that the Grand Canyon has been pulling one over on us when it came to its age. While no amount of Botox can even begin to cover up all its wrinkles and creases, we just might have been grossly underestimating its age all these years.

The commonly accepted age for the canyon has been set at around 6 million years, primarily based on geological clues in the rocks that form the canyon’s walls.

But researchers poking around in some of the canyon’s caves now figure that the carving of the western section of the canyon might have started as far back as 17 million years ago. Also, these same researchers think that the Grand Canyon may be the ultimate combination of two canyons that cut through northern Arizona at different times, with the eastern section of the canyon being “newer.”

The first thing you have to kick out of your head when comprehending all this is that the Colorado River – which currently snakes its way along the canyon’s base – was not the original river or water drainage system to carve out the canyon. So we can’t lock our thinking into that being a major factor in the canyon’s creation.

One of the big challenges in using geology to date a canyon is that erosion and canyon carving has continued on. So the clues we can find on the canyon’s surface or walls have themselves become compromised by the elements.

That’s why researchers from the University of New Mexico went into caves along the canyon to gather more geological clues. Those clues haven’t been altered by water run-off, wind or other eroding agents.

Rock samples were taken from ten different caves along the length of the canyon. And through the use of uranium-lead isotope testing, the section of the west canyon came out to being dated as 17 million years old.

Those tests also showed that the west canyon’s formation worked both east and west. It was a long, gradual process, with the canyon being cut at a rate of about two inches per 1,000 years.

That eastern, backward erosion eventually hooked up with the eastern canyon formation action about 5 or 6 million years ago to make one huge canyon. And with the bigger canyon, the carving pace accelerated to a rate of 8 to 12 inches each 1,000 years.

Mixed into all of that were geologic forces from under the earth that were pushing rock formations in the area up at the same time erosion forces were cutting down. And that, my friends, is how you get one impressive canyon.

Also, right now the Grand Canyon is in the midst of a three-day water release at the Glen Canyon Dam that is designed to redistribute sediment in the canyon and simulate the occasional spring floods the canyon received before the Colorado River was dammed. That process has occurred several times in the past and has controversies of its own to talk about.

Here are links to couple of the other Grand Canyon related Buzz content I’ve recently posted:

Lake Meade dropping
Grand Canyon Skywalk to open

Feel free to share your Grand Canyon thoughts here with other Science Buzz readers.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

BLB's picture
BLB says:

17 million years old, wow the grand canyon is older than i thought. I would really love to actually go see it with my own eyes. I'll touch it too.


posted on Thu, 03/06/2008 - 4:24pm
nelson.robin's picture
nelson.robin says:

man i cant believe it 17 million years thats old as xxxx lol man that old i would have never though it was that old

posted on Sat, 03/08/2008 - 10:35am
twila_08's picture
twila_08 says:

I wish that I can go see the grand canyon. I think that is so cool how it formed.

Twila Turnage

posted on Sat, 03/08/2008 - 6:22pm
hmoob_muas's picture
hmoob_muas says:

Grand Cayon, man its old 17 million i thought it would've been atleast younger....

posted on Thu, 03/13/2008 - 8:48am
Kunicki24's picture
Kunicki24 says:

So if the grand canyon is 17 million years old does that mean that in 17 million more years (if the earths still around) would the Mississippi River would be able to create a canyon like that.

posted on Thu, 03/13/2008 - 9:07am
andyshadexx's picture
andyshadexx says:

O.O i would like to get in one of the cave and explore the Grand canyon.

posted on Thu, 03/13/2008 - 9:23am
Looney_Tooney's picture
Looney_Tooney says:

that is really old...

posted on Thu, 03/13/2008 - 9:27am
angelina's picture
angelina says:

i just saw the grand adventure movie about the grand caynon it was inspireing i know know i will help the plant if you have any tips you would like to give me

posted on Fri, 02/06/2009 - 4:52pm
Beckman's picture
Beckman says:

Yea, it would be really good to help the enviroment.
I really wish people would take a ton more time to help the place and try to go green. It would save the plants a LOT! Maybe you could start to plant trees or something and get some friends to make a club of helping the enviroment. I hope it works!

posted on Sat, 02/07/2009 - 3:03pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Wow! There's some water saving to be done!And I hope that it getsdone!

posted on Sat, 03/21/2009 - 3:32pm
Elizabeth G's picture
Elizabeth G says:

So true. Our environment is really in danger. You should watch "The Inconvenient Truth". It is a documentary (sort of) that tells you all about global warming and the fact that it is NOT just a natural cycle. It's very interesting. You can rent it at a movie rental place! Chow.

posted on Sun, 03/22/2009 - 12:08pm

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