Geology and Geologic Time through Photographs

Archive for the month “April, 2012”

San Andreas Fault

Here’s a view of the San Andreas fault and Pt. Reyes in northern California, looking northward.  The fault runs right up the narrow Tomales Bay–and in just a few miles, runs along the edge of San Francisco.

The San Andreas fault is amazingly well-studied –it’s probably the most-studied fault zone in the world.  After all, it is capable of generating huge earthquakes in heavily populated areas, so the more we know about it the better.

San Andreas fault and Tomales Bay

Aerial view of San Andreas fault and Pt. Reyes --just north of San Francisco. View is to the north. The fault runs down Tomales Bay, the narrow arm of the ocean that runs diagonally across the photo.

One thing we know about the San Andreas is that it generally moves in a side-by-side way (strike-slip) so that rock on the east side moves south relative to that on the west side.  And over time, the fault has moved the eastern rock more than 300km relative to the western rock.

Now, 300 km –that speaks to millions of years of geologic time.  We can measure the rate at which the Pacific Plate moves relative to the North American Plate –about 4.5 cm/year.  The San Andreas takes up most of that –but not all.  But if we assume it takes it all, we’re looking at a total of 300km at 4.5cm/year –so at least 6.6 million years.

Of course… if you think planet Earth is only 10,000 years old, that means the fault’s moved some 300 meters (3 football fields) every 10 years.  And considering that the displacement was about 6 meters during the M 8.3 1906 San Francisco Earthquake…that’s a lot of earthquakes in just a short period of time!

Or another way of putting it, if planet Earth were 10,000 years old AND the San Andreas fault formed at the very beginning, 10,000 years ago… then there must have been 50 of those San-Francisco-sized Earthquakes every ten years –or… 5 of those every year.  Yikes!

But of course… we know that the San Andreas isn’t as old as the planet.  It cuts that granite at Pt. Reyes… which is related to the Sierra Nevada granite –which is really pretty young –but older than 10,000 years by about 100 million.

click here if you want to see more photos of the San Andreas fault –with a map!

Great Unconformity in Montana –and rising seas during the Cambrian

Here’s yet another picture of the Great Unconformity –this time in southwestern Montana.  Once again, Cambrian sandstone overlies Precambrian gneiss.  You can see a thin intrusive body, called a dike, cutting through the gneiss on the right side.  You can also see that the bottom of the sandstone is actually a conglomerate –made of quartzite cobbles derived from some nearby outcrops during the Cambrian.

Great unconformity in SW Montana.

Photo of Cambrian Flathead Sandstone overlying Proterozoic gneiss in SW Montana.


And that’s me in the photo.  My left hand is on the sandstone –some 520 million years or so old; my right hand is on the gneiss, some 1.7 BILLION years old.  There’s more than a billion years of missing rock record between my two hands.  Considering that the entire Paleozoic section from the top of the Inner Gorge in the Grand Canyon to the top of the rim represents about 300 million years and is some 3500′ thick… yikes!

And… just like in the Grand Canyon and elsewhere, there is Cambrian age shale and limestone above the sandstone.  This rock sequence reflects rising sea levels during the Cambrian.  It’s called the “Cambrian Transgression”, when the sea moved up onto the continent, eventually inundating almost everywhere.  If you look at the diagram below, you can see how this sequence formed.

Marine transgression

Sequence of rock types expected during a transgression of the sea onto a continent.

If you look at time 1, you can see a coastline in cross-section, with sand being deposited closest to shore, mud a little farther out, and eventually carbonate material even farther out.  As sea levels rise (time 2), the sites of deposition for these materials migrates landward, putting mud deposition on top the earlier sand deposition and so on.  At time 3, the sequence moves even farther landward, resulting in carbonate over mud over sand.  If these materials become preserved and turned into rock, they form the sequence sandstone overlain by shale overlain by limestone –just what we see on top the Great Unconformity.




Great Unconformity –in the Teton Range, Wyoming

As it turns out, the “Great Unconformity”, the contact between Cambrian sedimentary rock and the underlying Precambrian basement rock, is a regional feature –it’s not only in the Grand Canyon, but found all over the Rocky Mountain West –and for that matter, it’s even in the midwest.  As an example, here are a couple photos from the Teton Range in Wyoming.

The yellow arrow points to the contact between the Cambrian Sandstone and underlying Precambrian metamorphic rock... the Great unconformity.

This top photo shows the Grand Teton (right) and Mt. Owen (left) in the background… in the foreground, you can see a flat bench, which is underlain by flat-lying Cambrian sandstone.  Below that are darker-colored cliffs of Precambrian metamorphic rock.  The unconformity is right at their contact (arrow).

Also notice that the Grand Teton and Mt. Owen are made of metamorphic (and igneous) rock –but they’re much much higher in elevation than the sandstone.  That’s because there’s a fault, called the “Buck Mountain fault” that lies in-between the two.  The Buck Mountain fault moved the rock of the high peaks over the ones in the foreground during a mountain-building event at the end of the Mesozoic Era.  Because the metamorphic and igneous rock is so much more resistant to erosion than the sandstone, it stands up a lot higher.

Precambrian metamorphic and igneous rock of the Teton Range and overlying sedimentary rock.

This lower photo shows the view of the Teton range from the top of the sandstone bench (appropriately called “Table Mountain”).  As you look eastward towards the range, you can pick out the Buck Mountain fault (between the metamorphic and igneous rock of the high peaks) and the Cambrian sedimentary rock (the layered rocks).  Significantly, the Cambrian rocks, just like in the Grand Canyon, consist of sandstone, overlain by shale, overlain by limestone.

And geologic time… remember… for the sandstone to be deposited on the metamorphic or igneous rock, the metamorphic and igneous rock had to get uplifted from miles beneath the surface and exposed at sea level.  And since then, it’s been uplifted to the elevation of The Grand Teton (13370′) and Mt. Owen (12, 928′) !

Click here to see more photos of unconformities.
or… click here to see a geologic map of Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

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