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Sharing Lake Superior’s Secrets

Geologists explain the incredible story behind the area’s beauty in new video
  • Husband-and-wife team inspired by beauty of Lake Superior area to learn more
  • Ancient 2,000-mile-long underground crack formed in multiple stages, they found
  • Archeologist explains how Native Americans used copper from rift’s volcanic rocks
  • Rift produced some of the Midwest’s most interesting geology and scenery 

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Husband-and wife geologists Seth and Carol Stein have spent many vacations enjoying the recreational wonders of Lake Superior and the surrounding area. Now they are putting their scholarly know-how to work in a serious quest to understand the 1.1 billion-year-old secrets of Lake Superior and the mysterious Midcontinent Rift.

Seth Stein, the William Deering Professor in Northwestern’s department of Earth and planetary sciences in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, and Carol Stein, professor of Earth and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, are working with colleagues to share the amazing story behind the scenery. 

The Steins and their colleagues teamed up with Abigail M. Foerstner, chair of the news reporting department at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, to produce an educational video. Working with her and Medill graduate student videographers Lizz Giordano and Jia You, the Steins led a filming journey to some of the area’s most scenic sites.

Lake Superior is where it is because of the Midwest’s biggest geological feature: the Midcontinent Rift, an ancient and giant 2,000-mile-long underground crack that starts in Lake Superior and runs south to Oklahoma and to Alabama.

Some 1.1 billion years ago -- long before dinosaurs roamed the Earth -- North America started to split apart along the rift, and volcanic rocks poured out and filled the deep valley. For some reason, instead of splitting the continent, the rift died, leaving today’s beautiful scenery.

“It’s funny -- although Carol and I have often gone up to Lake Superior for vacations, we didn’t think much about the geology,” Seth Stein mused. “But after I helped start EarthScope, a huge National Science Foundation program to study North America, we and colleagues at Northwestern and other schools got interested in learning more about the rift. In the past few years, we’ve been working together to learn a lot more about how the rift started, grew and died.”

The video explains how the rift’s geology produced both the scenery and its geoheritage -- how it shaped the area’s culture and growth. The rift’s geology is why Lake Superior -- the area’s original transportation system -- is where it is. Rift copper deposits drove European settlement, and rift scenery draws today’s tourists.

“Behind the beauty, there’s an incredible geological story few people realize,” Carol Stein said.

The film crew interviewed other experts, including Northwestern archeologist James A. Brown, who explained how Native Americans all over the Midwest used copper from the rift’s volcanic rocks. 

“When we tell people about the rift, they’re interested and surprised,” Seth Stein said. “Most visitors and even people living around Lake Superior have no idea about the story behind the scenery. I’ve often drawn pictures in the sand around campfires explaining the rift.”

The video, produced with National Science Foundation funding, will be made available to national and state park visitors’ centers, teachers, kayak outfitters, museums, universities and other venues.