The Continental Divide--New Mexico at I-40
In New Mexico, United States
Size:  (not chosen)
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This earthcache is fairly basic and easy. The terrain and difficulty ratings are only higher than 1 because you will need to make three stops and take elevations at each stop.
A Continental Divide, sometimes called the backbone of a continent, is a topographic feature (natural boundary line of elevated land surface) which forms a border between separate drainage basins resulting in separating streams, rivers and waterways that flow toward the opposite sides of a continent.
The term Continental Divide refers to a particular type of drainage divide. A drainage divide/continental divide is the boundary of a drainage basin. It is the geological boundary that physically separates the drainage of one drainage basin (area drained by a river or lake) from that of another drainage basin. Precipitation on one side of a divide will drain into one basin and precipitation on the other side will drain into another basin.
A Continental Divide is found on each of the continents except for Antarctica which has no Continental Divide. A Continental Divide results over millions of years during the formation of the earth as mountain ranges form and the earth’s crust folds, terrain erodes and ridges and peaks that are now defined as divides are formed. We may picture the divide as a line on a map. But, the Continental Divide is a result of major geological formations and disruptions over millions of years as waters fell on the mountains and traveled downhill to valleys, into river systems and oceans. The position and number of divides, including The Great Divide, is strongly affected by climatic and tectonic forces, which raise mountains and alters drainage patterns. Surprisingly the Continental divide is not static. It is dynamic and changes in accordance with tectonic forces (forces within the earth that cause movements of the earth’s crust) and isostatic forces (equilibrium in the earth’s crust where the forces that tend to elevate landmasses balance the forces tending to depress landmasses), climatic forces that may alter drainage patterns, growth or loss of continental glaciers and human interference.
The Continental Divide, also referred to as The Great Divide, extends north to south and runs from the Seward Peninsula in Alaska, through British Columbia in Canada, through Montana, Wyoming and Colorado along the crest of the Rocky Mountains to New Mexico, along the crest of the Sierra Madre Occidental in Mexico and finally extends to the tip of South America following the crest of the Andes. The Great Divide is the only of the world’s continental divides to divide the river systems of two continents.
In the landscape of the American West the continental Divide is a most dominant feature. Even though it is a dominant feature, it is not obvious in most places. “It stays on neither the highest peaks nor the most conspicuous crests; sometimes it veers off a perfectly obvious ridge to head down the flank of a mountain and then back up quite a different slope. It hides itself among waves of parallel ridges; it masquerades a just another unimportant bump in the flatlands of New Mexico and southern Wyoming. Sometimes it goes on long detours, making 100-mile curves to the east or the west.” Berger, K. & Smith D. (1993) Where the Waters Divide: a walk along America’s continental Divide. Random House.
The Continental Divide passes through six of the seven ecological zones that are found in North America. It passes through the artic alpine tundra of the highest peaks in Colorado and through the harsh dry sands of the desert in New Mexico. Many definitions of a continental divide state that the divide follows along the high mountainous terrain. However, many places along the Continental Divide are not mountainous. Some areas along the divide are planar or follow a gentle slope. Elevations along the Continental Divide through United States range from approximately 1400 meters above sea level in the basin range of southern New Mexico to more than 4000 meters above sea level in the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming and Colorado.
Some parts of the Continental Divide remain in natural wilderness. Still other parts have been settled. Some of the things that now exist along the divide are grazing lands for cattle, logging camps, recreation resorts, towns, cities, highways and interstates.
At the coordinates of this earthcache, you will find the Continental Divide as it runs through New Mexico at Interstate 40. At this point, you will find a natural boundary line forming the boarder between two bodies of water. The precipitation falling on one side of the boundary line eventually travels one side of the continent and precipitation falling on the other side eventually travels to the other side of the continent, provided the water is not evaporated or redivereted in any way. Commonly it is said that precipitation falling on opposite sides of the divide always travels to two different oceans. However, snow that melts or water that falls may actually evaporate or be used by vegetation after the water enters into the soil. When this happens, the precipitation may not actually make it to the ocean unless it again falls as precipitation. Also, particularly in the North American southwest (where you are standing now) a lot of the precipitation flows toward deep underlying aquifers of groundwater. Sometimes, because the divides underground in the aquifers do not match exactly to the above ground Continental Divide, the water that falls on one side of the topographical Continental Divide may actually infiltrate the groundwater, travel within the underground aquifer and then redistributed on the other side of the divide. People can also redirect the precipitation through the use of diversion tunnels that can alter the way water would normally move when falling on the Continental Divide. Even though it is not possible because of reuse, evaporation, aquifers or human intervention for us to positively determine the destiny of each and every single drop of water that falls along the Continental Divide. We can be fairly certain that for the most part the precipitation falling east of the divide will ultimately reach one body of water and the water falling west of the divide will ultimately reach a separate body of water.
The sign at the coordinates will help you to determine which two bodies of water the precipitation falling here will eventually reach.
It is very important that you do not attempt to access this earthcache site directly from the interstate. The coordinates will take you to a road side sign that is located off of the interstate on a parallel road near exit 47. You will need to take the exit and follow the road signs to the Continental Divide. There is plenty of room for safe parking off of the roadway.
In order to log this earthcache as found you are required to email the following answers to me through my profile.
1. What is the elevation at this point of the Continental Divide?
2. According to the definition of a divide, this point should be at a higher elevation than the surrounding land. Is it? Travel .25 to .5 miles west and east of the Continental Divide and use your GPSr to measure the elevation there. What are these elevations? How do they compare with the elevation reading at the Continental Divide?
3. If it were raining at the coordinates, the rain falling to the west of the sign would eventually flow where?
4. If it were snowing at the coordinates, the snow falling to the east of the sign would eventually go where?
5. What is one natural occurrence that may prevent the precipitation falling along either side of the divide from reaching it's intended final destination?
6. Look on the back of the Continental Divide sign. What point of interest is located near the number 16? (bottom, left side)
A photo of you and your GPSr is always appreciated as added proof of your visit. If you have the ability to take and upload a photo, please do so. If you do not have that ability, please don’t let that keep you from exploring the Continental Divide, learning a bit about earth science or logging this earthcache.
Congratulations for being the FTF goes to WhirledCache and biomedy.
As of April 11, 2009, I am adding this note to all of my earthcache listings. I request that you email the answers to me on the same day that you log your “found it” log. (This does not have to be the day you visit, just the day you log the find on the computer.) I also request that you do not log a “found it” log unless you have actually visited the site of the earthcache and sent the answers to me. As much as I hate to do so, I will delete logs of finders who have not provided the appropriate answers.
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Last Updated: on 7/25/2017 9:34:49 AM Pacific Daylight Time (4:34 PM GMT)
Coordinates are in the WGS84 datum