Under long denudation mountains are subdued to the forms characteristic of old age. The lofty peaks and jagged crests of their earlier life are smoothed down to low domes and rounded crests. The southern Appalachians and portions of the Hartz Mountains in Germany are examples of mountains which have reached this stage.
There are numerous regions of upland and plains in which the rocks are found to have the same structure that we have seen in folded mountains; they are tilted, crumpled, and overturned, and have clearly suffered intense compression. We may infer that their folds were once lifted to the height of mountains and have since been wasted to low-lying lands. Such a section as that of Figure 67 illustrates how ancient mountains may be leveled to their roots, and represents the final stage to which even the Alps and the Himalayas must sometime arrive. Mountains, perhaps of Alpine height, once stood about Lake Superior; a lofty range once extended from New England and New Jersey southwestward to Georgia along the Piedmont belt. In our study of historic geology we shall see more clearly how short is the life of mountains as the earth counts time, and how great ranges have been lifted, worn away, and again upheaved into a new cycle of erosion.
The sedimentary history of folded mountains. We may mention here some of the conditions which have commonly been antecedent to great foldings of the crust.
1. Mountain ranges are made of belts of enormously and exceptionally thick sediments. The strata of the Appalachians are thirty thousand feet thick, while the same formations thin out to five thousand feet in the Mississippi valley. The folds of the Wasatch Mountains involve strata thirty thousand feet thick, which thin to two thousand feet in the region of the Plains.
2. The sedimentary strata of which mountains are made are for the most part the shallow-water deposits of continental deltas. Mountain ranges have been upfolded along the margins of continents.
3. Shallow-water deposits of the immense thickness found in mountain ranges can be laid only in a gradually sinking area. A profound subsidence, often to be reckoned in tens of thousands of feet, precedes the upfolding of a mountain range.
Thus the history of mountains of folding is as follows: For long ages the sea bottom off the coast of a continent slowly subsides, and the great trough, as fast as it forms, is filled with sediments, which at last come to be many thousands of feet thick. The downward movement finally ceases. A slow but resistless pressure sets in, and gradually, and with a long series of many intermittent movements, the vast mass of accumulated sediments is crumpled and uplifted into a mountain range.
Considering the immense stresses to which the rocks of the crust are subjected, it is not surprising to find that they often yield by fracture, like brittle bodies, instead of by folding and flowing, like plastic solids. Whether rocks bend or break depends on the character and condition of the rocks, the load of overlying rocks which they bear, and the amount of the force and the slowness with which it is applied.