geology of disney

The Geology of Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Before I even finished my first geology class, I jokingly said I was going to be a Spanish-speaking geologist at Walt Disney World. While the rocks at Disney may not exactly be real, Walt Disney World can actually be a great place to learn about geology.

In particular Disney’s Animal Kingdom celebrates the intrinsic values of nature and conservation and features attractions strongly rooted in an environmental and natural history background.

I’m going to give a look into three of Animal Kingdom’s geologically inspired attractions and talk about the real-life geology behind them.

Expedition Everest, Walt Disney World’s tallest attraction takes riders on a journey through the Forbidden Mountains to Mount Everest in the Himalaya. The mountain itself is not an actual model of Mount Everest—Everest is the barren Peak in the background on the far right—but is rather a fictional Forbidden Mountain guarded by the terrifying Yeti.

Like its cousin the Matterhorn at Disneyland, Expedition Everest is built with forced perspective to give it the illusion that it is a real imposing mountain, though it is just shy of 200 feet tall. The real Mount Everest, on the other hand, is the highest mountain on Earth at nearly 30,000 feet tall.

Mount Everest is a part of the Himalayan Mountain range, which stretches for over 2,400 kilometers in Asia centered around Nepal and is considered the world’s youngest mountain range. In fact, the Himalaya are still growing today.

The Himalayas were formed when the Indian subcontinent collided with the Asian continent around 50 million years ago. When the supercontinent Pangaea began to break up 175 million years ago, what is now today India began to rift away and was fully separated by 100 million years ago.

By around 84 million years ago, the Indian subcontinent rapidly began drifting more until it collided with the Asian continent. Continent-continent collisions occur at convergent boundaries of tectonic plates because it is difficult to recycle or subduct continent crust.

The rocks in the collision zone are thrust over one another to produce large mountain ranges like the Himalaya.

The ride Dinosaur, previously named Countdown to Extinction, transports riders back to the Cretaceous period just before the End Cretaceous Mass Extinction that wiped out 75% of all

species on Earth, including the non-avian dinosaurs. In time rovers developed by the Dino Institute, riders are supposed to be sent to the Early Cretaceous, but a rogue employee is looking to bring back an Iguanodon and sends riders just before the moment of extinction at the End-Cretaceous.

As a side note, iguanodons primarily lived during the Early Cretaceous 125 million years ago, which was 60 million years before the End Cretaceous Mass Extinction. So the Early Cretaceous would have actually been the perfect time to go and find an Iguanodon.

The ride warns that there is a meteor shower in range and counts down to an asteroid impact seconds away. 65 million years ago, an estimated 10-kilometer-wide asteroid hit Earth and produced a 180-kilometer-wide crater in the Yucatan of Mexico known as the Chicxulub crater. The rocks that the meteorite hit were primarily carbonates and evaporites, which would have been vaporized upon impact and released carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. Locally there would have been massive tsunamis, of which there is evidence for far into the continental United States.

However, the meteorite impact may not be the whole story of the demise of the dinosaurs. At the same time in India, there were massive volcanic eruptions producing flood basalts known as the Deccan Traps. The Deccan Traps are over 2,000 meters thick and currently cover an area of 500,000 kilometers. These eruptions would have spewed massive amounts of carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, already poisoning global environments before the meteorite hit.

Thus, the meteorite impact likely combined with the effects from these volcanic eruptions to cause the End-Cretaceous Mass Extinction and wiped out the dinosaurs.

In the newest land at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, guests travel to Pandora the World of Avatar in the Valley of Mo’ara, which showcases gravity-defying floating mountains. As with Expedition Everest, these mountains were constructed with forced perspective and are 156 feet tall.

While these mountains do appear otherworldly, they take their real-life inspiration from the so-called floating mountains of the Zhangjiajie National Park in the ruling Wulingyuan region of the Hunan Province of China. This forest contains more than 3,000 sandstone rock peaks, a thousand of which exceeds 660 feet in height. The peaks are composed of quartz sandstone, which was deposited during the Devonian Period around 390 million years ago when shallow seas covered the region.

Since deposition, the area has experienced various stages of tectonic uplift and movement, changing base level and producing joints and vertical fractures in the bedrock. While quartz sandstone is usually very erosionally resistant, the tectonic setting and regional climate have been able to sculpt the sandstone into these impressive peaks.

The Hunan Province of China experiences a monsoon climate and receives 1,400 millimeters of rainfall annually. The high amount of water activates stream channels, which cut down through the pre-existing fractures and joints in the rock. As streams deeply down cut into the rock, it creates structural weaknesses that allow for mass wasting events to remove large portions of rock.

The peaks likely did not begin to develop until the early to mid-Pleistocene 1.34 million years ago when there were frequent glacial to interglacial cycles creating climatic variations. Through a complex interaction of tectonics, climate, and surface processes, the peaks then began to emerge from existing plateaus and mesas.

A fun fact, the southern sky column, which is 3,500 feet tall has been renamed the Avatar Hallelujah Mountain, and you can even see some local Na’vi hanging out nearby.

Next time you’re at Disney’s Animal Kingdom at the Walt Disney World Resort, keep in mind there is real-life geology behind these park attractions. Mickey Mouse himself may even be a geologist!

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