The Origin of Mountains by Cliff Ollier and Colin Pain is a book to start you thinking in a new fashion about mountains and how they formed. You may think it's simple - mountains were formed by folding rocks - but once you have read this highly innovative book you will understand that such a simple idea can't explain many of the world's mountains. It's much more complicated and reading this book may mean you will never look at mountains in the same way again.
The theory that plate tectonics causes mountains to form by folding rocks is a widely held concept used in many geology books and TV programs. Ollier and Pain examine this commonly held perception of folding and try to demonstrate with numerous examples from the field how folds are unrelated to mountain formation. In most mountains any folding happened many millions of years before they were formed. In other examples deeply folded layers are found under flat plains. Their conclusion is that folding is not the cause of mountain formation.
Having dismissed the simple view of folding causing mountains they present the evidence that mountains follow a standard sequence of formation. Firstly most mountains start as a flat low lying plain. These are then pushed up to form high level plateaus. Eventually, erosion of the plateaus forms mountains over millions of years. Many examples of the various stages of this sequence of mountain formation are given throughout the book from high level plateaus, then plateaus highly eroded at the edges and finally to a nearly completely formed mountain. Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales, is given as an example that shows the final remnants of an old surface at the top and it's something I intend to examine in more detail on my next visit.
The book seems to contain examples from (what must surely be) virtually every mountain in the world. These are divided into a number of different chapters. There are also numerous diagrams and pictures to illustrate the concepts discussed in greater detail. Most of the ideas and concepts are related to various scientific papers and there is a comprehensive index if you feel the need to look at the data in more depth.
Chapter 10 examines a group of mountains that the authors say have been "...generally ignored in plate tectonic theory... ". These are mountains like the Drakenberg, the Western Ghats, the Eastern Highlands of Australia and the Appalachians, all found on passive continental margins. Once again the authors aren't disconcerted that these mountains don't fit any grand theory of mountain folding and simply examine the facts about the mountains. This seems to naturally lead on to the next chapter about drainage from plains and planation surfaces and what this can tell us.
One of the main points made by the authors is that most of the mountains of the world have been formed comparatively recently in geological timescales (within the last 5 million years or so) and this comparatively recent formation once again doesn't fit in with plate tectonics with its much longer timescale of a hundred million years or so. They also believe they can see periods of quiet tectonic activity followed by intense periods of world-wide mountain building. But why this should be is still a puzzle.
Indeed, though the authors make a very strong case for the process of mountain formation they do not present any firm conviction about the cause of this formation. Why are various sections of land thrust upwards to form plateaus? The authors give a table of twenty possible causes of tectonic uplift. For many I fear this would be off-putting but for me it is refreshing to find scientists who are prepared to say they don't know everything. After all if we knew everything then science would be very boring since there wouldn't be anything left to discover. As the authors note in the final chapters, the time is ripe for a renewed interest in the origin of mountains.
This book is very expensive for a new copy even as a paperback. I bought mine for a lot less using the `used - very good' option available on Amazon. I've obtained a number of books using this option and have been pleased with the results so far. Most `used' copies I've bought look as good as new to me.
Technical and not written for the layperson. (My wikimobile proved invaluable) Ollier and Pain follow the Socratic principle of following the evidence wherever it leads, when most geologists have their heads buried in computer models and theory. And they have gathered a lot of evidence in the field. As a result they reject the widely accepted plate tectonics theory of mountain building and put forward a theory of much more rapid and recent mountain formation. The results are particularly interesting for biblical scholars due to the many parallels of these ideas with Noachian flood geology.
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