Palo Duro Canyon To Get Starring Role

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

The spectacular Palo Duro Canyon near Amarillo, Texas, will be the destination and focal point of the AAPG Mid-Continent Section’s inaugural Biennial Field Conference, which will be held Oct. 5-7.

Registration opens June 5.

Theme for the field conference, which will be hosted by the Amarillo-based Panhandle Geological Society, is “On the Rocks – Palo Duro Canyon: An Exploration of Fluvial Systems and Their Application to the Subsurface.”

By offering this first-time ever “biennial” concept, Mid-Continent Section officials are hoping to shine a light on two dynamics:

♦ The Palo Duro Canyon itself, the second largest canyon in the United States, is a geologic wonderland of Permo-Triassic fluvial depositional sequences comprising colorful sandstones, shales and evaporates that could prove a popular destination for both geologists and the general public.

♦ Perhaps even more important, the event presents the opportunity for a smaller geological society without the volunteer capacity to hold a Section meeting to benefit from the camaraderie and other rewards of hosting an exciting event that isn’t an annual Section meeting, which for the Mid-Continent Section are held every other year.

As such, Mid-Continent officials are hoping this inaugural field conference becomes a model replicated by other societies in the Section.

In other words, this could be the start of a schedule where one year would see a Section annual meeting, and the next year an annual field conference.

There was a time when hundreds of geologists worked in Mid-Continent member cities like Amarillo, Ardmore, Okla., and Fort Smith, Ark. In some places those numbers have gone down – the Panhandle Geological Society, for example, has between 80-90 members still working and living in Amarillo.

“For societies with dwindling numbers of interested or available geoscientists, the volunteer capacity to host a Section meeting has also dwindled,” said conference general chair and AAPG member John Miesse. “And without hosting the biennial Mid-Continent Section convention, there are fewer opportunities for gathering with fellow geoscientists.”

That conclusion led a small group of Section members to envision the field conference.

“When the members of an organization gather together in person, the identity of that organization is realized by the unity of purpose and personal magnetism of its members,” said AAPG member and Mid-Continent Section liaison Mike McGowan.

“While the host society busily plans for the meeting and while the Section meeting is occurring, there is a sense of relevance and vitality,” McGowan said. “But with a biennial conference schedule, the shared optimism of the gathering is only realized every other year.

“Some of us in the Section wrestled with how to improve communications within the Section and establish a methodology for meeting in ‘off years’ as a way to incorporate the smaller geological societies,” he added. “We were very excited when the Panhandle Geological Society agreed to host the inaugural field conference.”

The Star of the Show

While the PGS stands to benefit from the cause of hosting a conference, the star of the show will be the Palo Duro Canyon.

Estimated at approximately 120 miles long and from 700-900 feet deep, the canyon begins in northeast Randall County, Texas, and continues southeast through Armstrong and Briscoe counties, according to AAPG member H. Charles Hood, of Barbee Exploration in Amarillo.

“Responsible for cutting this winding gorge is the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River,” he said. “Several major tributaries contributed to the canyon-making process, creating beautiful, somewhat smaller side canyons.”

Rocks representing a time span of some 240 million years are found exposed in the canyon walls, Hood said.

“The Upper Permian Quartermaster Formation is the oldest rock formation found in Palo Duro Canyon and comprises the red lower slopes of the canyon,” he continued. “The Quartermaster is overlaid by the Upper Triassic Tecovas and Trujillo formations (Dockum Group), which form the bulk of the rocks exposed and are responsible for many of the spectacular rock shapes seen in the canyon.

“Capping the rock record and forming the steep rim around the upper reaches of the canyon is the late Tertiary Ogallala Formation,” he said. “An assortment of eolian ‘cover sands’ and playa lake deposits dot the present High Plains surface currently visible.”

According to Hood, the Palo Duro Canyon forms a re-entrant into the eastern High Plains “Caprock” Escarpment. This escarpment runs in a north-south direction for several hundred miles and forms the natural boundary between the Southern High Plains or Llano Estacado to the west, and the Low Rolling Plains or Osage Plains to the east.

An Inspiring Locale

Those interested in being part of the conference might want to act quickly when registration opens June 5: Attendance will be capped at 125 people.

“With narrow canyon trails, smaller groups will visit different locations in the canyon, like Fuzzy’s Dome – an exposed series of gypsum anticlines,” said program chair and AAPG member Scott Taylor.

And it is something geologists will want to see.

“The Permian and Triassic exposures are unique to the Palo Duro Canyon,” he said. “When people come to the area for the first time they realize it’s well worth the trip.”

In fact, the dramatic canyon scenery is thought to have inspired 20th century American painter Georgia O’Keefe.

Organizers are optimistic that the inaugural field conference will be successful – and going forward, field conferences can be offered again in alternating years with the Mid-Continent Section convention.

The Panhandle Geological Society and the Mid-Continent Section will apply any net proceeds locally and regionally to support high school educational programs and university scholarships for future geologists.

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Regions and Sections Column - Carol McGowen
Carol Cain McGowen is the development manager for AAPG's Regions and Sections. She may be contacted via email , or telephone at 1-918-560-9403.

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