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Earth Notes - G.K. Gilbert, Plateau Geologist

Flagstaff, AZ – Earth Notes: G.K. Gilbert, Plateau Geologist

Geologists have been drawn to the Colorado Plateau for many decades. New York-born Grove Karl Gilbert was one of the first, and arguably one of the most influential, since he named the place.

G.K. Gilbert acted as geologist for the Wheeler Expedition in 1871, and surveyed the Grand Canyon region the following year. He joined the Powell Survey of the Rocky Mountains in 1875, and stayed with the United States Geological Survey for the rest of his life.

The Survey's leader, John Wesley Powell, was a charismatic promoter, but it was Gilbert who first developed many of the ideas Powell publicized. He described and named both the Colorado Plateau and the Basin and Range region to the West. He published groundbreaking studies on the Henry Mountains of Utah, and on Lake Bonneville, the Ice Age precursor to the Great Salt Lake.

But he didn't get everything right. In 1891 Gilbert argued that northern Arizona's Meteor Crater was the result of a volcanic steam explosion rather than a meteorite impact. Ironically, Gilbert went on to correctly identify lunar craters as the result of impacts, and was a pioneer in the field of impact-cratering experiments.

Gilbert died in 1918, leaving an indelible imprint on our understanding of the American West. His research on landscape evolution forms the foundation for today's geological research. You might say that those who love the Colorado Plateau, whether scientists or laypeople, stand on Gilbert's shoulders when we look out over our high plateau home.

-Christa Sadler