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Meanwhile, on the other side of the Cordillera, seismologistsusing a different set of clues, including artificial seismic waves andvariations in the Earth's magnetic field, searched beneath the2800-meter peaks of the southern Sierra Nevada for a big crustal root. Theytoo were surprised. \"I was stunned to find high mountains were beingheld up by the mantle, not by a crustal root,\" says Mooney, a member ofa team led by Brian Wernicke of the California Institute of Technology(Caltech). The team found that crustal thickening across the southern Sierrawas minimal, although a decrease in crustal density from east to west canaccount for about a quarter of the uplift, says Jones, another member of theteam whose study was published last year (Science, 12 January 1996, p. 190).The rest of the southern Sierran uplift, like that in the Rockies, mustsomehow stem from the mantle.
Its rise, geologists speculate, might somehow be ultimately dueto one ancient event that ties this hodgepodge of geologic provincestogether: the thrusting of an oceanic plate called the Farallon eastwardbeneath what is now the western United States about 65 million years ago.Oceanic plates usually dive steeply into the mantle, but a burst of volcanismand other geologic signs across the West suggest that the Farallon Platescraped horizontally against the underside of the continental plate instead,making the U.S. Cordillera tectonically \"alive\" today, saysHumphreys.
Geophysicists measuring the slowly changing distances betweenpoints on the surface have already mapped part of the high West'spossible escape route. These measurements, made with high-precisiontechniques such as very long baseline interferometry (VLBI) that use theradio emissions of quasars as benchmarks, show little sign of movement at theColorado Plateau says Humphreys. But at Ely, in eastern Nevada, the land ismoving westward at 5 millimeters per year. From there, westward acrossNevada's corrugated Basin and Range, Humphreys infers that the land issliding from the heights supported by the hot, buoyant mantle.
In Humphreys's view, this push from the east helps to createsome California scenery. \"There's nothing continuing to hold theinterior together, so it is pushing the Sierra Nevada and crunching up thecrust along the San Andreas,\" he says. That's the reverse of theconventional view, which holds that it's the Pacific Plate pushing fromthe west that shoves up the Coast Range along the length of California.
Finding no outlet to the west, the land finds \"a hole toflow out of in the Pacific Northwest,\" as Humphreys has argued in recenttalks. The hole lies in the northeastern Pacific, north of the Pacific Plate,where the Juan de Fuca Plate dives out of the way beneath Oregon, Washington,and British Columbia.
Proving this notion is difficult, however, because in the PacificNorthwest, the geodetic data peter out. Instead, Humphreys must look to theorigin of cryptic geological features. He cites the eastwest orientations ofsuch features as the Yakima fold and thrust belt of central Washington, wherethe crust has been crumpled along a north-south axis, as evidence of pastcrustal motion toward this \"tectonic window.\" 153554b96e