NSF Grant Funds Research on Paleozoic Rivers in the Western US

Examines the Effect of Tectonic Activity on Continental-Scale Rivers

The formation and disruption of continental-scale rivers during the Paleozoic is the focus of a project funded by the National Science Foundation. Joel Saylor, assistant professor in the University of Houston’s Department of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences, is the principal investigator of the three-year, $426,071 grant.

Sedimentary Sequence
Part of the sedimentary sequence (the Cutler Formation) that will be studied. It is exposed near Moab, Utah.

The research collaboration, with University of Houston as the lead institution, also involves EAS professor and associate chair Tom Lapen. Jeffery Rahl of Washington and Lee University is also a collaborator.

The largest rivers in the world often start in mountain ranges on one side of a continent and traverse the continent, bringing sediment to deltas on the opposite side. However, the factors that allow these long-lived rivers to maintain or re-establish their courses in the face of changing geological conditions are largely unexplored.

This new collaborative research project will study how transcontinental rivers change with time in response to the formation of mountain ranges or basins in the rivers’ pathways. Understanding how rivers respond – whether they find a way through or around the developing mountains or basins, and how quickly they re-establish their prior courses – is critical to accurately interpreting the sedimentary record in their deltas.

In addition to providing greater insight into continental-scale rivers, this project will provide STEM training for graduate and undergraduate students and support research infrastructure and analytical facilities at the two participating universities. Further, the project will provide an opportunity for hands-on, field-based STEM training for about 30 middle school students per year under the guidance of Saylor.

Research will focus on the “Ancestral Rocky Mountains” (ARM) and associated basins, which developed primarily in Utah, Colorado, Texas and New Mexico 320 to 280 million years ago. These basins archive changes associated with disruption and reintegration of a continental-scale river in response to ARM evolution.

This project will combine traditional and cutting-edge methods including field observations of sedimentary strata, laboratory analysis and development of new software. These data and tools will link changes in sediment sources to mountain and basin development through time.