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Geologic journey through time

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Down the hallway on a panel labeled "Epilogue," a map depicts a possible rendition of North and South America 100 million years into the future.

Baja California has rifted away from mainland North America and is located hundreds of miles north, off the coast of British Columbia.

Warmer climates have caused ice-derived meltwater to flood the lower portions of the continents.

North America and Asia have collided and created a single large continent, pushing up a mountain range between them.


This striking projection of the future is one of 33 panels in "Ancient Landscapes of the Colorado Plateau," a new exhibit at the Museum of Northern Arizona.

The exhibition is a geologic journey of discovery through the Colorado Plateau, made possible through the collaboration of Wayne Ranney, a local writer and geologist, and Ron Blakey, a map maker, geologist and professor.

Central to the show is Blakey's artful talents, especially his skill, honed over 15 years, of creating paleogeographic maps that portray ancient geology.

"This map is based on the way the continents are moving now," Ranney said about the futuristic image. "Ron has drawn future maps, and this is one of them. He has made these maps come to life."

Another map inside Branigar Hall shows what North America probably looked like 105 to 90 million years ago, when the Western Interior Seaway was near its maximum and was open from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico.

The seaway transgressed to the Colorado Plateau, leaving beach and coastal plain deposits known as the Dakota Sandstone.

"Typically, geologists are the only ones who knew what these landscapes looked like," Ranney said. "The exhibit is set up chronologically, so like all geology it starts with the oldest part of the story and moves up toward the present."


The exhibition was created from an award-winning book of the same name, published by Ranney and Blakey in 2008.

"This exhibit is based on the idea behind the book," Ranney said. "It's the idea that ordinary rocks -- sandstone, shale, limestone -- contain a record of Earth's history, and to me that's one of the magical things about being a human being. I feel so fortunate to live in a time we actually know what the Southwest looked like throughout these times, hundreds of millions, even billions of years ago."

Ranney and Blakey came to Robert Breunig, MNA director, with the concept for the show, and he approved.

"By making some of these maps of our region available to our visitors, we hope to foster a greater understanding of the geological processes that shaped our Colorado Plateau region through time and will which continue to shape it into the future," Breunig said in a museum press release.

Blakey, who relocated from Flagstaff to Sedona three years ago, said maps depend on the accuracy of the data derived from the geologic rock record, which is often incomplete.

"Because the rock record is incomplete due to erosion, a paleogeographic interpretation is also incomplete," he said in a press release. "...Until we can create a time machine that can take us back to directly examine past Earth landscapes, paleogeographic maps remain the best tool for reconstructing ancient Earth landscapes."


The collaboration between the two geologists has its origins in the past.

They first met in 1979, when Blakey was one of Ranney's first geology professors at NAU.

"This is a story about a NAU professor and one of his students," said Ranney, who himself taught geology for 20 years at Yavapai College. "He propelled me to be a geologist. I was fascinated by Ron's view of the world."

They met again in 2005 at a professional conference, where Blakey shared the map work he was currently involved in, which was taking form as a book, that he was having trouble getting published.

Ranney came onboard to help with the book and suggested they try to get it published through the Grand Canyon Association.

"I had already one successful book with the association," Ranney explained. "We had no idea how successful this whole idea would be."

Their 156-page book, "Ancient Landscapes of the Colorado Plateau," won two awards, Best Science Book, Arizona, by the Arizona Book Publishers Association and Best Large Format Book, from the National Association of Interpretation.

Published by the Grand Canyon Association, it is available in the MNA bookstore for $34.95.

Betsey Bruner can be reached at or 556-2255.



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