The surface of the Earth exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.- Will Durant
One million years ago-before there was an Adirondack Park with seasonal tourist attractions, environmental regulations, beaver ponds, and imaginary Blue Lines-there was a vast untamed wilderness of mountain rock and ice. It is doubtful that there were many trees or even much wildlife in the arctic-like terrain.
But go back 10-15 million years, or even more, and the Adirondack Mountains we know today may have been barely noticeable, at least according to a fascinating theory championed by a maverick New York geologist who died in 2001.
At that remote moment in time, the geologist claimed, the climate was warmer and the Adirondacks were literally new-born mountains-the result of a "domical uplift" that continues to the present day.
During the Miocene Epoch, the theory states, deep below the future State of New York, a molten hot spot-caused by the radioactive decay of uranium and thorium-began heating subsurface rocks causing them to expand and rise through the rock layers above it.
For more than 30 years, the late Dr. Yngvar Isachsen, a Cornell University trained geologist, challenged long-held beliefs about the age and origin of the Adirondacks. But some of Isachsen's conclusions have been, in turn, challenged by new data collected by the New York State Geological Survey and other sources.
Dr. William M. Kelly, chief geologist of New York State, said there's more research needed to fully understand the origin and age of the Adirondacks.
According to Kelly, his late colleague, Dr. Isachsen, studied the upstate mountain range in depth and corrected many long held myths about the Empire State's big peaks. However, he's not sure the mountains are rising as rapidly as Isachsen claimed. Instead, he blames instrument data and inaccurate, older data on any confusion.
"More recent rock-dating data suggests there's a longer, slower rise going on-maybe starting 130 million years ago," Kelly said. "Yet the edges of the mountain dome appear younger. But even with that said, why are these mountains rising so far from a plate boundary? Maybe Yngvar's hot-spot theory will prove to be as good an explanation as any other. Maybe there's a plume of magma stuck to the bottom of the continental plate? We just don't know."
In the late 1990s, Kelly said, a research team from Rensselaer Polytechnic Instituteconducted a global positioning system (GPS) study of the High Peaks region to see if the Adirondacks were rising rapidly. The team camped out and collected data for 72 hours. They discovered they couldn't get a reliable answer-they couldn't compare their data to existing data, including pioneer Adirondacker Verplank Colvin's survey data of the 1870s, because of various errors. So the RPIfield trip didn't amount to much. Using the 1990s data, RPI researchers plan to recheck the GPS results in 10 years.
Regardless, Kelly backed up some of his late colleague's claims-
•The Adirondacks are not "old" by standards of deep geological time (however, they are composed of very ancient, metamorphosed sedimentary and igneous rocks).
•Dr. Isachsen believed the Adirondacks started forming 5-10 million years ago; Dr. Kelly believes they are older-up to 130 million years old.
•The Adirondacks appear to be growing, but probably not at a rate faster than the Alps as claimed during the 1990s (1 millimeter per year).
•The Adirondacks are not a product of Ice Age rebound.
Kelly said many domical mountains are associated with hot spots. But in some cases, as seen on other planets, huge asteroid impacts can create dome mountains.
In Africa several dome mountains are erupting lava. Isachsen believed lava might someday break through the rocks of the Adirondacks. It won't happen-if it happens at all-for millions of years in the future, Kelly said.
The summit rocks of the Adirondack High Peaks were formed 1.1 billion years ago. Called anorthosite, these rocks closely resemble rocks found in the Moon's highlands; samples were brought back to Earth by NASA astronauts in the 1970s. Unlike lunar anorthosite, which is not metamorphosed, Adirondack anorthosite rock has been "cooked" in the subterranean deeps before being exposed in mountain peaks.
According to Dr. Isachsen, ground-truth bolstered his hot-spot theory at the famous carbonated springs bubbling up around Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
"The Island Spouter (spring) in Saratoga Springs State Park blows ten feet into the air like a geyser," he once said in a public radio interview. "Driven by carbon dioxide pressure, it erupts like an improperly opened bottle of champagne. Although lacking the drama of a volcano, the spring marks a deep scar in the Earth where ancient rocks of the Canadian Shield continue to rise above the lowlands of the young Adirondacks."
"You know, I loved Yngvar like a brother," Kelly said, "but I still can't agree with all of his scientific claims. But he posed some very intriguing questions. Despite all the new data, the Adirondacks remain a mystery waiting to be solved."