Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon – One of the World’s Wonders
The Grand Canyon is known the world over for its vastness, its beauty, and its uniqueness. Located in the state of Arizona and cutting across the Grand Canyon National Park, this most spectacular of the world’s gorges was carved out by the Colorado River and is considered one of the world’s greatest wonders.

The Grand Canyon is one of the world’s most powerful and inspiring landscapes, overwhelming in its immensity. Its majesty is awe-inspiring, its beauty breathtaking, its immenseness unfathomable. A visit to the Grand Canyon evokes a sense of the spiritual, and indeed, some Indians view the Canyon as sacred. Not surprisingly, many places in the Grand Canyon are named from mythology and religion: Hindu Ampitheater, Zoroaster, Buddha, Shiva, Confucius, and Solomon Temples….

The Grand Canyon is considered a natural wonder for many reasons, not the least of which is its immense size. Sprawling over 1904 sq. mi. and up to 1 mile (1,500 m.) deep, it is up to 18 mi. (29 km.) wide, and averages 10 mi. across. But although it is only 10 miles as the raven flies, it is 215 miles and a five hour drive to go from the South Rim to the North Rim. Cut by the Colorado River, the Canyon averages 4,000 feet deep for its entire 277 miles. It is 6,000 feet deep at its deepest point.

There are traces of man living in the Grand Canyon dating back to prehistoric times. The oldest human artifacts found are nearly 12,000 years old. In more recent times, Native American Indians inhabited the area, and when the Spanish first explored the area in the 16th century, the Grand Canyon was viewed as little more than an obstacle to exploration. Miners came to the area in the 19th century and built mines in the sides of the canyon. By the last decade of the 19th century, the Grand Canyon had become one of the country’s most celebrated tourist destinations, aided by the laying of a railway track. The Grand Canyon was established as a National Monument in 1908 and as a National Park in 1919.

In 1979, the Grand Canyon was inscribed on the UNESCO’s World Heritage list of natural sites for having met the following four criteria:

1) to contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance;
2) to be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features; 3) to be outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals;
4) to contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation.

Geology and Ecology:
The Grand Canyon is one of the most studied geologic landscapes in the world. Several factors make its geology remarkable. First is its immense size. Secondly, whereas many canyons form as rivers cascade among mountain peaks, the Grand Canyon sits incised into an elevated plateau. Its geology is not hidden under vegetation, but rather exposed to view by its desert landscape. Then, of course, there is the Canyon’s age, which can be traced back 2 billion years. It is the oldest geological feature on earth, and its revealed horizontal strata preserve a lengthy, although incomplete, record of Earth’s history.

The Grand Canyon offers an excellent record of three of the four eras of geological time, a rich and diverse fossil record, and an extensive range of geologic features and rock types, and archaeological and biological resources. It is considered one of the finest examples of arid-land erosion in the world.

The history of the Grand Canyon began over two billion years ago, when the heat and pressure from a tectonic collision changed the existing rock into metamorphic rock that became the basement of the canyon. The North American Plate overrode the Pacific Plate about 70 million years ago, forming the Rocky Mountains and the Colorado Plateau, which was pushed up thousands of feet from sea level. Very little tilting or deformation of the sedimentary layers occurred. By 5 or 6 million years ago, the Colorado River flowed across the Colorado Plateau on its way from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California. A steep gradient and heavy sediment loads caused considerable erosion, deepening and widening the canyon. The Canyon’s enormous chasm was sculpted by these forces: the Colorado River, flooding, ice, gravity, and wind.

They have sliced through the multicolored strata of rock laid down by ancient seas and forests and deserts. Nearly horizontal layers of sedimentary rocks – formed near sea level and from limestone accumulated on the ocean floor – make up the upper 2/3 of the canyon’s walls. The cliffs and slopes profile of the canyon is formed because harder, upper layers collapse as softer, lower rock layers are eroded more quickly. Because each of the layers erodes differently, the canyon is a convolution of cliffs, platforms, towering buttes, and tributaries.

The Grand Canyon contains several major ecosystems. Its great biological diversity can be attributed to the presence of five of the seven life zones and three of the four desert types in North America, which is equivalent to traveling from Mexico to Canada. The land is semi-arid and consists of raised plateaus and basins typical of the southwestern U.S. Forests are found at higher elevations while the lower elevations are comprised of a series of desert basins.

The Park serves as an ecological refuge, with relatively undisturbed portions of dwindling ecosystems. It is home to numerous rare, endemic (found only at Grand Canyon), and specially protected threatened or endangered plant and animal species. Over 1,500 plant, 355 bird, 89 mammalian, 47 reptile, 9 amphibian, and 17 fish species are found in the park. We saw mule deer, wild turkey, elk, squirrels, bright blue pinyon jays, black ravens, and California condors, although there are also rattlesnakes, bighorn sheep, and mountain lions.

Success Story: The Comeback of the California Condor
In prehistoric times, condors (the largest land bird in North America with a wingspan of 9 ½ feet and weighing up to 22 pounds) ranged from Canada to Mexico, and across the United States from west to east coast. They were a common resident of the Grand Canyon, but a dramatic range reduction occurred about 10,000 years ago, coinciding with the extinction of several large mammals that the condors fed on. By the time Europeans arrived in western North America, condors had retreated to the Pacific coast from British Columbia to Baja, California.

The birds maintained a strong population until the settlement of the west, when shooting, poisoning from lead and DDT, egg collecting, and general habitat degradation began to take a heavy toll. By the late 1930s, all remaining condors were found only in California and by 1982, the total population had dwindled to just 22 birds. Today, the California condor is regarded as one of the rarest birds in the world.

But there is good news! Grand Canyon National Park has participated in the condor reintroduction program with encouraging results, making the park one of the easiest places to view California condors today.

A captive breeding program began in 1980, and when only nine birds remained in the wild in 1985, a controversial decision was made to bring all remaining condors into captivity. All hope for recovery was placed on the captive breeding program. Captive bred condors were being released back into the wild in California beginning in 1992. By 1996, they were released in Arizona, the first time condors had flown over the state since 1924.

There are currently around 60 free flying condors in Arizona. Many of them frequent Grand Canyon, especially during the summer. To call the program a success, the birds must not only survive, but also reproduce. And that did happen a few years ago! After a couple of years of unsuccessful nests, the first condor hatched and fledged in Arizona in 2003, the first in more than a century. There are now a total of 305 condors worldwide.

One problem that the condor now faces is that of lead poisoning. The birds are exposed to lead when they ingest bullets or pellets from the carcasses that they eat. To reduce this lead source, the Arizona Game and Fish Department provides hunters in northern Arizona with coupons for non-lead ammunition.