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UM geology Professor Jim Sears and fictional adventurer Indiana Jones have a lot in common. For example, they are both world travelers in pursuit of treasure and knowledge.
However, while Jones’ crusades have him dodging Nazis and angry tribesmen, Sears’ longtime project has led him from Montana to Siberia to Death Valley in search of his own personal Holy Grail: rock formations that show Montana and Russia were once attached.
A faculty member at UM for 22 years, Sears studies plate tectonics — a theory explaining the earth’s distribution of land masses and other geological elements using the movement of the earth’s underground plate system. He has a theory that Siberia was once connected to the Rocky Mountain chain stretching from Montana and Wyoming and into Death Valley in Nevada.
His theory recently became more concrete when he found what he was looking for — rock formations in Death Valley matching those in Siberia. To the naked eye, the rocks look like cousins, but to Sears they appear to be brothers from the same mother.
“It’s kind of like an archaeological site,” Sears says. “You have to look at all the layers.”
Now Sears and others are breaking down the rocks into sediment to reveal their age. If that matches, Sears believes the history of how the United States split from Asia will be changed.
So how could Siberia be attached to Death Valley when California and the Pacific Northwest come between them? The answer lies in the mysterious workings of plate tectonics. Nobody knows for sure what causes the plates to shift. But what is known is that when a continent splits into two pieces an ocean forms between the broken- off pieces, mountains form in the wake of the split and sediments left in the ocean start to build up to create more of the Earth’s crust. This may explain how California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska were formed.
The idea that Siberia may have once been connected to the United States developed in Sears’ head while he was working on his doctoral degree at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. During this time he attended a meeting in Ottowa, where in the headquarters of the Geological Survey of Canada his Montana-Siberia idea was born. There was a huge globe in the lobby about the diameter of a typical office desk. The globe showed rock formations and had the continents broken down into transparent pieces that could be moved around and rearranged.
“It’s what you might call a tectonic globe,” Sears says.
with the pieces, he noticed the curvature on Siberia’s
transparency matched a region stretching from Montana
to Death Valley. Putting the two together, and with the knowledge that Siberia’s
mate — what formed when it broke apart from another
land mass — was
unknown, he started to develop his theory.
his idea to Ray Price, a prominent geology professor from Queens University,
and Price urged him to write a paper on his theory. The paper, titled “The
Siberian Connection,” was published
in 1978 and co-authored by Price.
Winston, who taught at UM for 43 years, had studied what are known as the “Belt rocks” in western Montana. He noticed the rock formations end in Washington and had always wondered why. Where did the formations go? When Sears applied for a job at UM, Winston, who had read his paper, was interested in Sears’ theory, and the two became research partners.
At the Waterton meeting, Winston brought rock samples from western Montana to show Khudoley, who was familiar with similar formations in Siberia. Khudoley did not recognize a match, but everyone had a feeling there was more to it, Sears says. Sears then traveled with Winston to Death Valley in spring 2003 — and saw rocks matching those Khudoley worked with in Siberia.
The process following the trip to Death Valley is what Sears refers to as “kind of like matching curtains.” Rock samples were collected and analyzed. Then, when Sears received funding from the National Science Foundation, he traveled to Siberia with Khudoley and Andrei Prokopiev, another specialist in Siberian geology. Finally, he took another trip to Death Valley last December with Prokopiev to collect additional samples.
Sears says going to Siberia for six weeks last summer was like traveling into the past. “It was really like frontier living,” he says. His group spent one month exploring a remote eastern section of the Siberian wilderness, traveling with rafts down the Belaya River, which knifes through the heart of the Sette-Daban Mountains. They faced floods, bugs and incessant rain, and if they got into trouble, help was at least two hours away by helicopter. They didn’t see other human beings until near the end of their trek.
The trip was especially memorable for Sears because his son, Robert, a UM senior majoring in Latin and math, got to go along. Sears says his son’s ability to speak Russian was critical for success.
Currently, Sears, Price, Khudoley and Prokopiev are developing a paper to release their findings to the science community. When the ages of the rocks are determined sometime next summer, Sears, who poured so much of his life into this one idea, could have found the answer to his question. A puzzle could be finished. Textbooks could be rewritten. And a geology professor from UM could have found his own personal Holy Grail.their findings to the science community. When the ages of the rocks are determined sometime next summer, Sears, who poured so much of his life into this one idea, could have found the answer to his question. A puzzle could be finished. Textbooks could be rewritten. And a geology professor from UM could have found his own personal Holy Grail.