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Photo Essay: Exploring the Rocks That Join the Americas

The formation of the slender land bridge that joins South America and North America was a pivotal event in earth’s history. At its narrowest along the isthmus of Panama, it changed not just the world map, but the circulation of oceans, the course of biologic evolution, and global climate. Cornelia Class, a geochemist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and Esteban Gazel, a Lamont adjunct researcher now based at Virginia Tech, are looking into a key factor: the Galápagos Plume. This is a long-lived upwelling of super-hot magma from the deep earth that has formed strings of volcanoes that later became part of the land bridge. They recently spent a week on western Panama’s remote Azuero peninsula collecting rocks produced by the plume millions of years ago. What they are finding sheds light not only the geologic history of Central America, but the processes of the deep earth.

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