Gone are the days of maps with unexplored blank patches. Today, every square mile has been surveyed, examined and recorded; most places can be viewed from above through the eye of a satellite on the internet. The canyons of southern Utah were one of the last areas to be explored by Euro-American settlers, who laid their mysteries bare through exploring rivers in the 1800s. Now they too are mapped in great detail, showing a landscape made largely of flat-topped mesas surrounded by winding canyons.
One area breaks this pattern of twisting canyons cut through layers of sandstone: Upheaval Dome, in Canyonlands National Park’s Island in the Sky District. Its jumble of mismatched rocks, warped layers, and sheer size makes it one of the most unusual geologic features in southeast Utah. Easily visible from the air, Upheaval Dome is a ring of skewed sandstone close to two miles across, with a steep mound rising to a ragged spire at its center.
Upheaval Dome was first thought to be a volcanic crater in the early 1900s. Geologists have now determined that it is not, but until very recently, that was about all that was firmly known. The leading notions of its creation have held that it is either the deep core of a long-gone salt dome or an eroded meteorite crater. Both arguments have solid supporters in the geology community, are grounded in well documented geological knowledge, and can claim supporting data. But neither side has been able to find solid, conclusive proof that everyone could agree on. Upheaval Dome, more than a hundred million years in the making, remained a blank spot in our knowledge.
A little over a decade ago, that started to change. A study published in 2008 announced the discovery of a small amount of “shocked quartz.” These microscopic fractures in the individual grains of sandstone are widely recognized as proof of meteor impacts. Scientists concluded, based on those findings, that the dome was without a doubt a meteor crater. Many people celebrated the findings as the solution of another mystery.
The scientific process requires the findings of a study to be replicated by other scientists to become accepted geologic fact. In the years since, other studies have emerged, some supporting the impact hypothesis for Upheaval Dome, others challenging it. As debate continues, scientists get ever closer to unraveling the mystery of Upheaval Dome.
Today, the geography and geology of southeast Utah have few remaining ‘blank spots’ and modern travelers face different unknowns than those who first sought to understand or map the landscape. While some mysteries may be laid bare by science and mapping, visitors today continue to seek exploration and find wonder in Moab’s dramatic landscape, delighting in the mysteries that remain and investigating their own personal blank places on the map.