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Point of the Mountain: Unstable Ground?

Could prime real estate be on a giant terrestrial landslide block? BYU geologists are looking for the truth about Traverse Mountain's origin.

Traverse Mountain, also known as Point of the Mountain, marks the border between the Salt Lake Valley and Utah Valley. Many buildings and houses stand on this well-known piece of Utah geology.

But what if Traverse Mountain was actually a giant terrestrial landslide block—not an ordinary mountain? That’s the question Dr. Jeff Keith, who teaches in the Department of Geological Sciences at BYU, and his graduate student Collin Jensen want to answer. If Keith and Jensen prove this theory to be correct, Keith thinks the Point of the Mountain might be one of the larger terrestrial landslides in the world.

“It’s most significant in terms of the amount of very expensive real estate built on it,” Keith said. “People typically don’t want to build on unstable ground.”

Jensen became involved with this project after taking it over from his friend who had graduated from BYU. Jensen realized that that there was some good evidence supporting the giant landslide theory, and that convinced him to join the project. Part of the project is incorporated into Jensen’s thesis.

“It started out as just a few observations—for one, it just looks like a landslide if you look at an overhead map or a satellite photo of the area,” Jensen said. “The biggest thing that we’re looking at are these things called pebble dikes. They seem to be sourced from some long distance away, and we’re like, ‘How could that rock have gotten all of the way over here from its source seventeen kilometers away?’”

The pebble dikes have chunks of igneous rock in them, and Keith and Jensen think the igneous rock was originally part of Little Cottonwood Stock, which is seventeen kilometers away from Traverse Mountain’s present location.

But the theory is still under investigation.

The process of gathering evidence includes a lot of fieldwork, including hiking around Traverse Mountain and gathering samples of rocks from what is called the White Pine Intrusion in the Little Cottonwood Stock. Other collaborators include people from our department, from the Utah Geological Survey, and from private industries.

After Keith and Jensen go out in the mountains and do fieldwork, the duo have several undergraduates in the lab back at the Eyring Science Center analyze the pebble dikes. The undergraduates search for chunks of igneous rocks in the pebble dikes and use various lab techniques to separate the different minerals in the rocks.

Given the implications of the giant landslide theory, Keith and Jensen expected to have their fair share of doubters and critics in the geology community.

“You know how [President] Lincoln chose his cabinet to be his enemies?” Keith said. “We’ve chosen the members of the committee to be broad enough that we can get various aspects and various disciplines represented by each of them. They’ve each seen the strength of the argument, and none of them are saying this is crazy—they’re saying this has potential.”

If their theory is correct, they want to learn more about it so that they can serve the public by advising citizens where a similar landslide may happen again.

“If this is a major geological hazard, we want to make sure that this does not become a destructive geological hazard and that we can reduce the impact of that hazard,” Jensen said. “We can help people; if there is this hazard, we can help people before the negative consequences come.”