Date of Award:


Document Type:


Degree Name:

Master of Science (MS)



Committee Chair(s)

Joel L. Pederson


Joel L. Pederson


Tammy M. Rittenour


Susanne U. Jänecke


To study the history of processes that shape the Earth’s surface, geologists look for markers in the landscape that they can date and use to measure change. Rivers leave such markers in their deposits and terrace landforms and in the overall shape of their elevation profile from head to toe. This thesis uses luminescence and cosmogenic methods to date the sediment in terraces to determine when the river deposited it. Field mapping and global positioning system (GPS) surveying are also used to measure the distance between terrace levels to quantify how much change has occurred. This study seeks to answer questions about when, how quickly, and why streams near Moab in Utah’s Canyonlands region have incised into bedrock. It seeks also to determine the history, rates, and patterns of the active and incremental sinking of Moab and Spanish valleys.

The results from this work show that the incision of canyons along Mill and Pack creeks upstream from Moab accelerated around 200,000 years ago to between 0.44 and 0.62 millimeters per year (mm/yr). The sinking of Moab and Spanish valleys also appears to have quickened around the same time and has occurred at up to 1.35 mm/yr in Moab Valley and around 0.45 mm/yr in Spanish Valley over the last 100,000 years. The Kayenta Heights fault zone (KHFZ) accommodates part of the sinking of Moab Valley and has slipped at an average rate of 0.44 mm/yr in the last 100,000 years. This study’s mapping of the length and width of individual fault strands supports prior interpretations that the KHFZ does not pose an earthquake hazard, though it can still be expected to produce active rock fall and rupture the ground surface locally.

That the sinking of Moab and Spanish valleys and the down-cutting of the upstream canyons has occurred at similar rates, and may indeed have sped up at a similar time in the past, indicates a linkage of the two processes. This is consistent with an existing hypothesis that Moab and Spanish valleys are sinking because groundwater is dissolving the buried salt deposits and transporting them out through the Colorado River. This process is able to continue because as the Colorado River and its tributaries incise lower into the landscape, groundwater follows and can reach greater depths in the salt deposits. The results of this study paint a picture of the recent and accelerated sinking of Moab and Spanish valleys, which has occurred jointly with incision of the regional drainage network. This acceleration of incision, which has been documented throughout the Canyonlands region, may relate to the Colorado River’s carving of Grand Canyon around 6 million years ago or may have come from a more recent and unknown downstream source.



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Geology Commons