Learning to Love Geology in Yellowstone

By the late 18th century, scientists knew quite a lot about the planet we live on. They knew the dimensions of the Earth and even its distance from the sun and other planets. One would think that determining the age of the Earth would be relatively straightforward. However, there would be many discoveries (i.e. splitting of the atom, invention of television, nylon, and instant coffee) before scientists could figure out the age of our home planet. How could this be?

First of all, not a lot of people were studying geology. It simply was not thought of as an exciting subject. James Hutton, who happened to be in the minority, is given credit for creating the science of geology. In 1795, he wrote about the slow processes that shaped the planet. However, this landmark writing did little good in advancing the field because the writing was so boring no one could understand it. Hutton did, in fact, ask one important question:

Why are ancient clamshells and other marine fossils so often found on mountaintops?

Hutton came to the conclusion that the marine fossils had risen along with the mountains themselves. He also deduced that it was the heat within the Earth that created new rocks and continents. According to Hutton, it was also this heat that caused land to erupt from the surface and form mountain chains. The amazing thing is all of this conjecture was 200 years before plate tectonics would be adopted as a scientific theory.

Geology, as a field of science, did not spark much interests in the U.S. until Charles Lyell, the greatest geologist of the 19th century, came to give a series of lectures in Boston in 1841. Lyell had published The Principles of Geology in 3 volumes between 1830-33. This book was so influential that even Darwin took a copy of it with him on the Beagle voyage.

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem offers the rare chance for people (not just professional scientists) to immerse themselves in geology. Yellowstone’s geology is unique because you can actually see geological processes at work in real time. To get the most out of this geological journey it is important to know some basic points.