Searching for the Roots of the Appalachian Range

Apr 1, 2019

Wheeling resident and entrepreneur Brian Joseph posed the latest question in our ongoing Wild, Wondering West Virginia series. He asked us to tell the story of the oldest mountains in the world (the Appalachian Mountains) and to also include the sister mountain range (the Atlas Mountains) in that tale.

This question won our online voting round, so we decided to visit with Joseph to gain a bit more insight into his curiosity.


Brian Joseph is an entrepreneur who has built a successful career turning Appalachian coal into material that is helping humans fly through the atmosphere and even reach into space. He loves West Virginia, and especially the Northern Panhandle where he says there’s a machine shop in the basement of a house on every block. Joseph believes geography plays an important role in shaping communities on many levels.

“It defines what we do every day,” Joseph explained. “It defines the shape of our roads; it defines the kinds of homes we live in, whether or not we have basements; it defines the work that we do; it defines how we recreate. It created us.”

Given the chance, Joseph will happily rattle off a list of innovations and inventors from the region - and that spirit, he says, is shaped by the very old ground we stand on.

“West Virginians live our lives separated by some of the oldest mountains on planet Earth. So when we actually go and touch some of these mountains with our hands, we’re actually touching some of the oldest rocks in existence. And I think we take that completely for granted in West Virginia,” he said.

Understanding the lifespan of the Appalachian Mountains requires considering concepts like Deep Time -- which is especially difficult for human brains to grasp. Just for a second, consider that a bunch of millions of thousands of trips around the sun-ago - all the continents were smashed together and the Appalachian Mountains were like the Alps - reaching way up into the sky. Then, a couple inches a year, oceans grew between the continents.

via GIPHY

That’s tough to wrap the brain around, especially since it was only hundreds of thousands of trips around the sun-ago when we humans started traipsing around the remnants of these mountains… which of course, have scooted all over the globe now. Including, as Joseph points out, in Morocco.

“So those are our sister mountains,” Joseph said pointing to a map of Morocco. “They’re called the Atlas Mountains. It would be interesting to go there and just think about how the geology there and the geology here and the difference in the latitudes have created different lives, different worlds.”

A trip to Morocco sounds like fun, and is definitely cost-prohibitive. But we’re a creative group us Appalachians here at West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Joseph points out that our ancient geology has pushed Appalachians to be creative, resourceful, maker, scientist-types who, like the mountains themselves and like him, reach for the stars…

“If you want to know more about how stars evolve, how the universe evolves, you gotta listen to Star Date. Why is Star Date important? Well because Harlan J. Smith from West Virginia started it. He was the director of the McDonald Observatory. That’s one of the things he did during his tenure was Star Date - which I listen to on public radio all the time.”

So stay tuned. We’ll be working on crafting the story of the oldest mountains on Earth over the next several weeks. Hopefully this will be fun…  

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