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See Inside January 2007

The Mississippi's Curious Origins

A mountain range once separated the continental interior of the U.S. from the Gulf of Mexico. Some clever geologic sleuthing has revealed how that barrier was breached, allowing the river to reach the Gulf

On examining a map of the world, many schoolchildren notice that the continents surrounding the Atlantic Ocean can be neatly fit together like pieces of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. Just snug West Africa up against the East Coast of the U.S. and shove the northern end of South America into the Gulf Coast. That is indeed how these continents were arranged a few hundred million years ago, a fact geologists know, in part, because the plate tectonic movements that created this great landmass left their marks.

In the eastern U.S., the collision with Africa raised the Appalachian Mountains to heights that probably once rivaled the Rockies. Similarly, the impact of South America created the Ouachita (pronounced "WAH-shi-TAH") Mountains, which run west to east across Oklahoma and Arkansas and formerly blended smoothly into the southern Appalachians. Yet somehow the once continuous Ouachita-Appalachian range was cleaved in two, leaving room for the Mississippi River to flow into the Gulf of Mexico. The explanation for the split, which the two of us have been investigating for most of the past decade, touches on many other mysteries of North American geology, too--such as why you can find diamonds in Arkansas and why the largest earthquake that was ever recorded in the contiguous U.S. occurred not in California or Washington but in Missouri, of all places.

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