Our planet is absolutely, incredibly, breathtakingly beautiful, and tells us all of its secrets if we just know how to look. This is the story of the famous Rocky Mountains, and the substantially less-famous Rocky Mountain Trench.
Rocky Mountain Trench and western Canada as seen from the International Space Station on 6 September 2014. Image credit [& massive huge-resolution version]: NASA
This is our planet. Just a part of it — looking out from Calgary over the Rocky Mountains down to Vancouver at the coast of the Pacific Ocean — but our planet as it has actually been seen by real human eyes from the International Space Station. As a real-colour optical image, the colours are as you'd expect them: forests are green, fields of grain are yellow, exposed rocks are grey, and snowy mountain peaks are white.
But where things get crazy is that in this images, the geology is laid bare for our eyes to see the suture of where British Columbia was scraped onto the continent during massive collisions of tectonic plates.
Annotated view of the Rocky Mountains as seen from Western Canada. Image credit: NASA. Read more: Earth Observatory
Between 55 and 185 million years ago, at least three chains of islands crashed into the proto-continent of North America, accrediting new land in a snarl of rock and chaos. The processes wasn't tidy, tearing up the terrain as the massive compressive forces ruptured normal faults through the plate. From space, this history of chaos is written large, pairing the epic mountain range with an less-visually-stunning but just as impressive valley.
Clouds fill in the trench, highlighting it in this Landsat image. Image credit & read more: USGS
The Rocky Mountains are inseparable from a massive valley stretching over 1,000 kilometers from the Yukon down into the continental United States along the western boundary of the mountains. The Rocky Mountain Trench is a structurally-controlled valley varying between 3 and 12 kilometers wide, split roughly into a more sinuous section south of the McGregor Plateau east of Prince George, British Columbia, and a more tightly linear northern section diving towards the northwest. The mountains build up from the southwest to the northeast, so the Columbia Mountains along the southwest edge of the southern trench are older than the more-famous Rocky Mountains. In the intervening years, glaciers and rivers have cut and eroded the terrain while the elements weather the rocks into submission, gradually softening the still-impressive peaks and valleys.
No matter how many stories I write and photographs I highlight, I don't think I'll ever grow tired of just how incredibly beautiful our planet is. Whoever thought to set all these NASA photographs free, making them not just available to the public but downright easy to browse and stay up-to-date on the latest images home? That was an absolutely brilliant idea, and thank you.