Care to poke around the Clay and Platte county basements?
No, this story won’t discuss the wide-screen TV you put in the man cave after Christmas, the old toys stored too near the water heater, the pingpong table missing the net, the cat box that needs attention — none of that.
This excavation of our foundations will penetrate far, far down past our roots, all the way to what geologists call the “basement” rocks. And also filter far, far back in time — well past the hula hoop you still haven’t thrown away or even the species of hairless apes who invented it.
So far back, algae was king.
Never miss a local story.
If nothing else, this topic literally will be the deepest subject on which you will read this week, short of the Book of Genesis.
We in the Northland are “upper crust,” but then so is a Brazilian slum when one discusses the Earth’s geology, those thousands of feet of layered rocks keeping our toes out of molten mantle rock.
And we’re true, old-school America. We’ve been here since the rocks came bubbling up from the Panthalassic Ocean.
California and the West Coast are simply hitchhiking newcomers. And Florida? It was part of Africa before it came with us.
The ages of the Northland’s rocks are measured in mind-numbing millions of years, eons and ages. To try to place such vastness of time in some context, imagine a clock face on which a million years is represented by a single minute, just one flick of the long hand.
In the seconds just before this clock chimes midnight, humans first learn to use fire to cook their kills and warm themselves against the cold and wander across the Bering Strait land bridge. The last nanosecond or two (12000 B.C. to 7000 B.C.), they were chasing mastodons on our prairie grasses.
But that’s just what’s called prehistory. It will be the dock from which we will paddle on this trip, ever upstream against the flow of time, to the days when the trilobites — Paradoxides, as the fossils of such were once charmingly termed — scurried below in our mud.
As we voyage along, this story will try to point out a few landmarks — or the lack of them — in our saga of Clay and Platte counties. We shall henceforth call this lost Northland area Nordagea.
“Lack of them?” you wonder. Take the glaciers. They skated through just a couple of time.
It is a fact that the area makes a poor romance novel for Mother Nature. Just as Nordagea mostly avoided the cold embrace in the ice sheets, her skin never tickled from the hot tongue of magma.
T. rex bones? Dead dinosaurs tell no tales in our particular fossil record, although finding mammoth teeth is not out of the question.
Much of our story is written in the silt of shallow seas. It’s safe to say that early residents of Nordagea enjoyed the freshest of seafood — and largest: The Inoceramus oysters were four feet across.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s head to the basement and the Cenozoic, our first step. Be sure to hold on to the rail — it’s a lonnnngggg way down.
Shivering in the ice sheets
Everything that occurred in the last 60 million years or so is the Cenozoic (“new life” in Greek) Era. It’s an amazing time. A wolflike creature avoids an evolutionary cul-de-sac by taking to the water and shape-shifting into today’s whales. Trotting across our prairie was the housecat-sized Sifrhippus, which would morph into today’s mustang, although ultimately not on this continent.
Amazing mammals, having filled the niches left by the dinosaurs, wandered around here in Nordagea. Fragments of ancient bison and the early horse have been found here. Mastodons, too, just south of the Missouri River. They would have shared the area with towering giraffe-rhinos, huge sloths and beavers that would be little awed by redwoods.
(The first Missouri mastodon bones were dug up in 1840 a little south of St. Louis by a German naturalist named Albert Koch. He assembled a skeleton that he called Missourium theristocaulodon, or Missouri Leviathan. He thought it walked on the bottom of our rivers and lakes, contending that it was mentioned in the Book of Job and opining that a passing comet killed it.)
The spruce forests of Nordagea — like those found up in the Colorado mountains today — were covered by ice at least two times by what’s called the Independence glaciation. At one point between between 610,000 and 780,000 years ago we were where the Dakota and Minnesota ice lobes met, blocking the earlier river beds and creating giant lakes in Kansas. When these invaders melted, the floods and overflows invented the Missouri, Kaw and Big Blue river valleys.
Like monster Easter eggs, pink granite boulders called erratics from Minnesota were left here and there amid the deposits of gravel and till.
Most of our soil came later, after the late Wisconsin glaciation about 20,000 to 14,000 years ago. The ice had ground rock “flour” fine enough to be blown here by the north winds. This fertile loess (amaze your friends by saying it with a German accent) piled up atop silt, clay and gravel, and is very obvious in our road cuts and Missouri River bluffs.
Once the glaciers passed on, the spruce gave way to mixed prairie and deciduous forest.
Dig deep, and you might find a few inches of the Pearlette ash beds. About 2.1 million years ago, you see, residents of Nordagea did not have to go to Yellowstone for a vacation — Yellowstone came to them.
That was when the caldera, or super volcano, exploded there, releasing 2,500 times the airborne debris of Mount St. Helens. (Pressure is building up again, by the way. The floor of Yellowstone Lake is rising.) We’ve been dusted from smaller New Mexico and California blowouts as well, the most recent about 600,000 years ago.
That was all very recent.
The Cenozoic, between about 80 million and 50 million years ago, was when the Rocky Mountains pimpled up. They were a lot taller — about 20,000 feet above today’s sea level — and are still growing, in fact, but losing the race to heavy glaciation in the ice age and now erosion. Much of the rubble washed through those canyons has ended up in west Kansas, one reason that Interstate 70 drive to the slopes is so less-than-stimulating.
On the other hand, when the kids keep asking: “When are we going to see the mountains? When are we going to see the mountains?” just point out to those vast flats and say, “You’re looking at them.”
While all that rowdy stuff was going on out west, Nordagea was a quiet geological cul-de-sac for the last 66 million years or so.
No Jurassic parking
It was the previous era, the Cretaceous, when our region pretty much took a dive.
Perhaps because of new lava filling ocean basins, or perhaps because the land simply sank as mountains lifted to the west, the sea level rose, causing the Gulf of Mexico to get too big for its britches and swallow western Kansas and Colorado.
This Western Interior Seaway, or Niobrara Sea, some call it, eventually would reach all the way to Alaska and the Arctic Ocean.
Changing water levels and evolving sea life were the order of the day: Those ammonoids, squidlike creatures with coiled external shells, would have been an excellent starter at Bonefish Grill, had anyone thought to build it back then.
For long stretches, the water would dip enough so we had amazing beachfront property. Just one problem: You had to keep the kids out of the water. The top of the food chain was pretty toothy: monster mosasaurs; 60-foot plesiosaurs, some long-necked, some short; a 1,000-fang, shell-crusher shark. Even the sea turtles came in XXL.
If one drives out to Hays, Kan., one will find the Sternberg Museum, full of impressive Late Cretaceous fossils, including those of soaring pterosaurs. So they had to land somewhere, right? Nordagea, no doubt.
“There was a time when dinosaurs could walk from Alaska to North Carolina,” said Reese Barrick, director of the Sternberg.
The musuem’s amazingly preserved ghosts in stone include the famous fish in the fish. So why did they get all the good fossils in Kansas, and the very few from Missouri all come clear over in on the southeast side?
Richard Zakrzewski, Sternberg curator emeritus, has the scientific answer: “We cheated.”
For the record, those mosasaurs and plesiosaurs and such were reptiles, not dinosaurs. Surely the monsters swam off our beaches, but there’s no clear evidence — no evidence at all. Millions of years of erosion have wiped Nordagea clean of all fingerprints from the Western Sea. From the earlier dinosaur-infested Jurassic and Triassic periods as well.
Think about that: rock record — hundreds of feet deep — erased.
The Cretaceous ended when a six-mile-wide asteroid plunged into what we know as the Yucatan. About the same time closer to home, a two-miler hit what is now northern Iowa, leaving the long-buried Manson Crater.
Whether from one or several impacts, three-fourths of all life forms on Earth were snuffed by nuclear winter. For any of the giant lizards nibbling on ferns or each other in Nordagea, it was hasta la vista, baby.
So then a weary little Ptilodus (think the acorn-obsessed Scrat in the Ice Age movies) turned to his furry mammal mate and said, “I thought they’d never leave!”
Even before Cancun’s very, very bad day, it was a bit bumpy for North America.
Until about 175 million years ago, our Northland address had been Pangea, zoning S-R, for supercontinent residential. But a big piece called Laurasia broke away, heading to new ZIP codes north and west. Nordagea was along for the ride.
Then about 60 million years ago, Eurasia split off of Laurasia, greatly expanding the Atlantic Ocean as we drifted apart.
The bigger chunk, Gondwana, was still down south. Midwifed by plate tectonics, it spawned Africa, South America, Antarctica, India and Australia.
Suddenly all these continents were zooming around like bumper cars at speeds reaching 2 inches per year. If that doesn’t sound scary, then take note: When India slammed into Eurasia, it lifted the Himalayas. Africa similarly pushed up the Alps. The Pacific plate rammed into us, building the Rockies on top of a much older, pretty much rubbed-out mountain range. While we’re discussing mountains, the much older Appalachians were once as high as the Himalayas when the African plate crunched into us. Most has been rubbed away.
Nordagea always stayed far enough from the edge of our plate to keep our hair from being mussed.
But North America is hardly done with all this fender-bending. We’re racing toward Japan. About 20 miles every million years. Make sure you’re buckled up.
We around here lived at that Pangean address during the Permian Period (299 million to 251 million years ago).
Nordagea spent much of this time as a shallow marine shelf that sloped to the south. At some point the water drained away, and the climate turned dry — desert dry in many places.
Reptiles had a blast. Turtles were invented. A 37,000-square-mile salt lake around what is now Hutchinson, Kan., evaporated, leaving salt concentrations up to 30 stories deep between 600 and 1,000 feet below.
What else about this period? Oh, yeah. It ended with another stupendous extinction — 90 percent of living things in the water, perhaps three-fourths on land. It’s still a big “whatdunit?” but some point to asphyxiation from too little O in the old H2O.
Up to this point those trilobites were slightly more common here than Camrys and F-150s. Twenty thousand different models were produced over 250 million to 300 million years. But Mother Nature grew bored and discontinued the line.
Next stop, Penn strata!
Finally, we have tripped back down our time steps enough to find a rock record we can actually touch — mostly in road cuts, but also walking along streambeds — our true antiquity, the Pennsylvanian Period (330 million to 300 million years ago).
Think of the earth beneath you as a giant Dagwood sandwich. Atop all, a vegetation-covered slice of topsoil and gravel (let’s call it wheat bread). The Pennsylvanian piled our sandwich with slabs of shale (think turkey) and layers of limestone (cheese), one after another, again and again. These repeating sheets are called cyclothems, and they add up to roughly 500 feet of filling.
The sea marched in, the sea marched out. Great clam stews of brachiopods, crinoids and bryozoans flourished, only to die off as well and be frozen in limestone. This is calcite limestone, which we mine in abundance around here.
As the fresh water flowed into lagoons and swamps, vegetation sprang up, a Sigillarian rainforest of 80-foot bottle brushes. Six-foot centipedes were underfoot.
But the briny seas returned, so they all perished, too. Over and over and over. Under new sediments and their increasing weight, the vegetation would in time turn to coal or oil.
A big part of the Upper Pennsylvanian rock is known as the Missourian Series, but the majority of its layers have Kansas names such as Merriam and Argentine limestone and Quivira shale. There’s a Raytown limestone and Union State shale, though.
Most of Nordagea’s petroleum or natural gas is trapped about 2,000 feet below in Squirrel sandstone. (Its name came from wildcatters complaining that it “jumped around.”) The first gas deposits were tapped in 1900.
This sand may come from a delta channel that flowed into the western sea as the Ozarks were lifted again.
Anyway, the sea receded, and — whoa, what was that?!? Something with legs, not fins, just skittered by, probably hunting the seriously big cockroaches found in this part of the basement. Tracks of a cat-sized, salamander-looking fellow have been found just over the state line.
Likely, these were amphibian vertebrates, probably not the best evolutionary bet at Darwin’s craps table. That because they deposited their eggs in water or mud — which had a bad habit of drying up for centuries at a whack.
No, as the giant ground-shaking sauropods (think Apatosaurus/Brontosaurus) later proved, put your money on reptiles. They lay their eggs on terra firma.
Today, as we cruise by in our carbon dioxide-spewing SUVs, we might contemplate the lessons of rising sea levels in those deep cuts made by our highway engineers.
One thing about these Pennsylvanian formations: They are not flat. They breach like whales, rising at about 12 feet per mile from the deep of the prairie to the west — where the proto-Rockies formed and squatted on the rock layers like a sumo wrestler on a teeter-totter.
Nordagea dozed on, sometimes wet, sometimes dry. Remember when Laurasia kicked Gondwana outta bed into the next hemisphere? Well, it had been during this earlier Pennsylvanian Period when the freeloader had moved in with us in the first place — that was when the Ozarks got crowded into a higher berth as mentioned above.
Yes, we were young and foolish, and the promises of creating Pangea, which translates to “all lands,” sounded like a never-ending union. But it didn’t last, and we went our separate ways. But Laurasia got custody of the kid, Florida.
How are we doing for time? Ready for the door down to the next level?
Dat ol’ Mississippian
The stratification from the older, deeper Mississippian Period surfaces in other parts of Missouri, but not here.
Back then (359 million to 318 million years ago), Nordagea was almost right on the equator, so it was toasty. Amphibians ruled, snapping perhaps at those buzzing dragonflies with their 2-foot wingspans.
You find a lot of crinoid fossils from the limestones of this period, so we must have been under the Mississippian Sea a lot of the time. Sometimes called “sea lilies,” these actually were primitive animals, not plants. All those tiny stone “coins” the kids find in the gravel? Segments of the stem that anchored the thing to the mud below.
Twice the thermostat was turned down because the movement of the land masses messed up the warm-water currents, and before you knew it, glacier ice had sucked up so much water that the sea level dropped. In many places the massive Mississippian forests rose and fell to be squeezed into even deeper seams of coal.
“Coal forms because there’s a swamp, and when the trees fall, they go underwater quickly,” explains Tony Walton, University of Kansas professor of sedimentary geology.
Missouri has perhaps two dozen layers of coal, low-quality stuff in thin sulfur-heavy layers. The stuff was once mined all over around here, but today is economically uninteresting, except for one small strip-mine operation in Bates County, Mo.
But then we didn’t want to be strip-mined, anyway. Strip-malled is bad enough.
Is it hot … or is it just me?
Plunging ever downward, we hit first the Devonian layer (416 million to 359 million years ago); below it the Silurian (444 million to 416 million years ago); the Justinbieberian (nah, just checking if you were paying attention); and way down there, the rocks of the Ordovician (488 million to 444 million years ago).
The Devonian is known as the age of fishes, and some of the cockier ones started crawling up onto sun-warmed rocks. Much of the time, this dry land probably includes us Nordagea, still snug a little south of the equator.
Before this, during the Silurian, Nordagean fish are trying out their new jaws in the shallow waters of the Panthalassic Ocean.
This period also offers the first fossil record of land-colonizing plants, which will lead to all kinds of unwanted consequences, such as crabgrass.
During the still-older Ordovician Period, Nordagea, along with everything else below Canada, was once more submerged, this time under the Iapetus Ocean.
As rock-ribbed members of the continental-shelf club, we always get to play in the tropical, shallow end of the pool though.
There amid the diversifying corals and sea mosses, the scallop-like brachiopods tried to keep up with their neighbors, the gastropods, who frolicked with their sea-slug family.
Point of interest: The rocks laid down elsewhere on a seabed in this period are now at the top of Mount Everest.
Slice of Cambrian
Yes, I know, we’ve come down a lot of stairs, but we’re not all the way to the bottom yet.
Another period (Cambrian, 542 million to 488 million years ago), another supercontinent. This time it was Pannotia, number four of perhaps five in the Earth’s history. Australia squatted where Arizona is today, but not for long (relatively speaking, of course).
Much as it would do later with Pangea, the North American plate broke off and began heading north.
Deep under the ocean’s surface, we assume Nordagea’s residents started off as worms and sponges, then became shelled and spiny creatures. Real gentrification brought in our sea-bug friends, the trilobites, as well as sea scorpions and a five-eyed, elephant-trunked predator from your worst dreams.
This period, cradle to all the creatures that oozed, swam, flew and walked over the next 540 million years, exhibited an energetic surge. So many different creatures formed that Charles Darwin worried that it undercut his theory of evolution.
Don’t tell the building inspector, but our foundation nearly cracked about 1 billion years ago. This was in the Mesoproterozoic times, when a 1,200-mile rip in the North American plate grew from what is today Lake Superior down to just a few Kansas counties away. We’re not sure why this Midcontinent (or Keweenawan) rift stopped.
This near-disaster happened during the Precambrian Era, which stretches from 543 million years ago all the way back to 4.1 billion, the beginning of Earth.
Geologists roughly divide the era into the Archean, when our rock crust finally formed the stage upon which cyanobacteria would debut (fossils in Australia go back about 3.5 billion years), and the less ancient Proterozoic, when absorbing oxygen became fashionable.
Oxygen, that world-changing element, was spit out by a worldwide wall-to-wall carpeting of blue-green algae, by the way. So the next time you see pond scum, say thank you and mean it.
Meanwhile, it was the same old dance. Supercontinents were forming, breaking up, hugging again. Kenorland, Columbia, then Rodinia. Our North America/Greenland craton (think stable core) was snugly in the middle when Rodinia was assembled. This later would be our paleocontinent of Laurentia.
But just as it was getting cozy came another shattering rift, and things got ugly. Laurentia was dragged underwater across the South Pole by its tectonic plate.
It is safe to say that our property values have never been lower. On the other hand, the neighborhood was quiet, as single-cell organisms have trouble operating snow blowers on Sunday mornings.
Why snowblowers? At a couple points before 650 million years ago, the Earth looked like a giant snowball, or more likely, a slushball.
When this ice melted, however, the shallow seas began their time-honored role as nurseries of more complex, multicelled life. Some were the Ediacarans, who lacked mouths or digestive organs. Down the street lived the Cnidarians, who had mouths but no anuses. But enough about the neighbors.
Then the world cooled again, and most of these creatures were killed off. Sigh.
You can see Precambrian granite down in the Grand Canyon, and there’s a bit in the eastern Ozarks, but if you wanted to visit it around the Kansas City area, be prepared to dig a hole to go down, say, to 2,550 feet.
How deep is that? Drop the Empire State Building, including its spire, down your hole, then dump in two Power & Light buildings atop each other, and still you’d see nothing poking up above ground level.
Keep in mind that everything we’ve had to pass through to reach this granite basement has been sedimentary rock, layers of shell and plant, silt and sand that once were mountains before time and erosion teamed up to obliterate them. Then, like so many Lego creations, they endlessly stacked anew.
So here we are at our sub-sub-sub-(and so on)-basement. Yes, we could go even deeper, but why bother? There’s nothing to distinguish Nordagea from any other place down here.
Although many miles deep, this uneven crust of granite is relatively thin, less than 1 percent of the Earth’s volume.
You sense the heat of gooey mantle below, the outer core, mostly liquid iron, with some nickel and a little silica. Squeezed inside by pressure beyond our imagination is the inner core, a rotating, solid iron ball. The temperature at the center is estimated at 4,300 degrees Centigrade, four times as hot as lava.
So no, let’s not open that door. The stairs have melted anyway.
To reach Darryl Levings, call 816-234-4689 or send email to email@example.com.