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Geology and Geologic Time through Photographs

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Geologic Irony in Cincinnati and northern Kentucky! Deep geologic time everywhere –and the absurd denial of the Creation Museum.

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted –too many things have been happening, like the end of fall term, other deadlines, and of course, coming down with a bad cold!  But I did manage to visit Cincinnati, Ohio for Thanksgiving.  I’m originally from Cincinnati, and I always enjoy going back.

Ordovician shale and limestone along I-75 in northern Kentucky; downtown Cincinnati, Ohio occupies the background

Ordovician shale and limestone along I-75 in northern Kentucky; downtown Cincinnati, Ohio occupies the background

Besides visiting with old friends, one thing I love about the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky area, is the incredible wealth of marine fossils in its rocks, which date from the Ordovician Period, some 475 million years ago.  It’s always amazing to me that I can, almost at random, pick up a rock and see the remains of critters that were actually alive so long ago.  It fills me with a sense of wonder, mystery, and awe that I’ll never be able to explain –and it demonstrates to me how I’m a part of the earth –not apart from it.

marine fossils in Ordovician limestone from northern Kentucky --you can see mostly brachipods (they look sort of like clam shells) and bryozoa (branching coral-like things) in this rock.

marine fossils in Ordovician limestone from northern Kentucky –you can see mostly brachipods (they look sort of like clam shells) and bryozoa (branching coral-like things) in this rock.

Really, these fossil-rich limestones are just about EVERYWHERE!  Even many of the stone buildings and walls that you can see throughout Cincinnati, are full of Ordovician marine fossils.

And what a wonderful setting!  The Ohio river cuts through its original floodplain, now perched a couple hundred feet above the river.  That’s actually a whole story in itself, because today’s Ohio River formed as a result of the continental ice sheet advancing across northern Ohio, and blocking the courses of several north-flowing rivers, such as the Kentucky and Licking Rivers.

Looking up the Ohio River from the air --near where Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana meet.

Looking up the Ohio River from the air –near where Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana meet.

And then there’s the Creation Museum in northern Kentucky, perched on the old river terrace above bedrock of fossil-rich Ordovician limestone and shale.  One look at the two photos below and you can see what they’re all about.

The explanation for fossils according to the Creation Museum (on the left), and a diorama depicting a human being coexisting with a dinosaur on the right.

The explanation for fossils according to the Creation Museum (on the left), and a diorama (on the right) depicting a human being coexisting with a dinosaur.

According to “The Museum”, fossils “were formed by Noah’s Flood (~4,350 years ago) and its aftermath” –and dinosaurs really did coexist with humans.  In fact, I read that before Adam and Eve ate their apple, T Rex dinosaurs were actually vegetarian.

But don’t take it from me that those limestones are actually very old (100s of millions of years, as opposed to 4,350 years).  Take a look at a geologic map.  The Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky area is underlain by more than 1000 feet of limestone and shale –and if you travel eastward or westward, you encounter 1000’s more feet of marine sedimentary rock that sit on top the Ordovician.  And the fossils in those rocks show a change with time, called evolution.  If you think about it, you’re looking at a long long time to deposit –and preserve–all that sediment.

Geologic map of the United States; the area around Cincinnati is enlarged.  "CM" shows the approximate location of the Creation Museum.

Geologic map of the United States; the area around Cincinnati is enlarged. “CM” shows the approximate location of the Creation Museum.

The Creation Museum tells us that all that sediment was deposited by “the flood”.  Never mind that very little of the rock contains particles even as big as a sand grain.  Below is a photo of a real flood deposit.  As you can see, the deposit is very coarse-grained!  It’s coarse-grained because large floods are very energetic and transport large particles.

Coarse-grained sediment, deposited by one of the Missoula Floods in Oregon, some 15,000 years ago.

Coarse-grained sediment, deposited by one of the Missoula Floods in Oregon, some 15,000 years ago. The exposure is about 20 feet high.

So the Creation Museum is asking you to BELIEVE that 1000s of feet of limestone were deposited by a flood, as well as the 1000s of feet of older rocks and 1000s of feet of younger rocks I didn’t even mention.  They also want you to believe that T. Rex was a vegetarian who lived alongside Adam and Eve.

But here’s what really bothers me: by misrepresenting science and promoting its own skewed interpretation of the bible as the literal Truth, the “museum” discourages people from looking at these beautiful rocks with a sense of wonder, mystery, and awe.  It discourages them from inquiring into how those rocks really formed.  The museum discourages people from learning important things about our planet and from forming their own views on the world.

Me petting a dinosaur at the Creation Museum

Me petting a dinosaur at the Creation Museum.


Type “Ordovician” into the search for a few more photos of Ordovician fossils.

California’s largest lake formed by its largest fault zone: the Salton Sea and San Andreas Fault

With a surface area of nearly 1000 square kilometers (381 square miles), the Salton Sea is California’s largest lake.  But it’s relatively shallow –and because it has no outlet, it’s saltier than ocean water.  It formed in 1905 when the nearby Colorado River overwhelmed irrigation canals and flooded the region.  Now it’s an incredibly important migratory bird refuge, fishery, and dumping ground for agricultural waste.  Seems like those things shouldn’t really go together!

Aerial view of the Salton Sea, looking northward.

Aerial view of the Salton Sea, looking northward.

But it just seems young.  The Salton Sea actually occupies part of the Colorado River Delta –and as a result, has been filled with freshwater multiple times since the delta was first constructed, probably near the beginning of the Pleistocene.  It’s also at the remarkably low elevation of 234 feet (71m) below sea level; the deepest part of the lake is 44 feet (13 m) below that.

And the low spot is there because of extension caused by the San Andreas fault system!  The San Andreas fault terminates along the eastern margin of the lake basin, but steps across the lake to the Imperial fault, which forms its western margin.  Both faults are right-lateral –and because they step to the right, they pull the area apart in-between them.  Kind of like central Death Valley –which is even lower in elevation than the Salton Sea!  But more on Death Valley later.

Aerial view of Salton Sea, with the approximate locations of the southern San Andreas and Imperial faults.  Note how right-lateral slip on the two en-echelon faults drive extension between them.

Aerial view of Salton Sea, with the approximate locations of the southern San Andreas and Imperial faults. Note how right-lateral slip on the two en-echelon faults drive extension between them.


click here to see more photos of the San Andreas fault system, or click here to see a photo geology tour of Death Valley, California.

Cloudy afternoon waving at the Stawamus Chief–lovely spot and deep time

My friend Jessica and I skipped out from the Geological Society of America meeting in Vancouver last weekend to go visit the Stawamus Chief –a gigantic granite monolith near the town of Squamish.  What a lovely place –and what a great respite from the craziness of a big meeting in a big city!

I don’t want to repeat myself too much, because I wrote about this in an earlier post–but just the fact that granite is exposed at the surface requires deep time –inconceivably great lengths of time.  That’s because granite forms from a molten state by slow cooling and crystallizing far beneath Earth’s surface –10 km or more usually –and THAT means the rock had to get uplifted and exposed at Earth’s surface through processes that we humans perceive as time-consuming–on the order of millions of years.  Additionally, all the rock that used to be above the granite had to get eroded away in the process.

Stawamish Chief rises some 2000 feet above us --a trail leads to the top.

And Shannon Falls is right there too–Amazing!  It sprays about 1000′ down a series of cliffs–and allows a good, up-close look at the granite.  It’s actually granodiorite –which is a lot like granite except that it contains a lot more plagioclase, as opposed to alkali, feldspar.

Shannon Falls, near the bottom of its 1000' drop.

Shannon Falls, near the bottom of its 1000′ drop.

So… the granite speaks to great amounts of time… and the waterfall–it speaks to the changing landscape.  It falls down scoured and smoothed cliffs because the whole area has been shaped by glacial erosion.  Not long ago, this area was under ice!  (Longer though, than the beginning of planet Earth according to the Young Earthers).  You can see some wonderful glacial polish and striations on fluted granite along the highway between the Chief and the town of Squamish.

Glacially carved granite--right next to a large pull-out on the highway.

Glacially carved granite–right next to a large pull-out on the highway.


click here for some more photos of intrusive igneous rocks.

Crater Lake caldera, Oregon –some things happen quickly!

Crater Lake never ceases to amaze me.  It’s huge –some 6 miles (10 km) across, deep –some 1700 feet deep in parts –the deepest lake in the United States and 7th deepest on the planet– incredibly clear, and really really blue.  And for volcano buffs, one of the best places ever!

Crater Lake as seen from The Watchman.  Wizard Island, which formed after the caldera collapse, occupies the center of the photo.

Crater Lake as seen from The Watchman. Wizard Island, which formed after the caldera collapse, occupies the center of the photo.

Crater Lake is a caldera, formed when ancient Mt. Mazama erupted so catastrophically that it emptied its magma chamber sufficiently for the overlying part of the mountain to collapse downward into the empty space.  That was about 7700 years ago.  Soon afterwards, Wizard Island formed, along with some other volcanic features that are now hidden beneath the lake–and then over the years, the lake filled to its present depth.  It’s unlikely to rise any higher because there is a permeable zone of rock at lake level that acts as a drain.

Here’s one of the coolest things about the cataclysmic eruption: Not only was it really big, but it happened really fast.  We know it was big because we can see pumice, exploded out of the volcano, blanketing the landscape for 100s of square miles to the north of the volcano –and we can see the caldera.  We can tell it happened quickly because the base of the pumice is welded onto a rhyolite flow that erupted at the beginning stages of the collapse; the rhyolite was still HOT when the pumice landed on it!  You can see the welded pumice on top the Cleetwood Flow along the road at Cleetwood Cove.

pumice welded onto top of Cleetwood rhyolite flow at Cleetwood Cove.  Note how the base of the pumice is red from oxidation --and forms a ledge because it's so hard.

pumice welded onto top of Cleetwood rhyolite flow at Cleetwood Cove. Note how the base of the pumice is red from oxidation –and forms a ledge because it’s so hard.  Pumice blankets the landscape all around Crater Lake.

Crater Lake though, is so much more than a caldera –it’s the exposed inside of a big stratovolcano!  Where else can you see, exposed in beautiful natural cross-sections, lava flow after lava flow, each of which erupted long before the caldera collapse and built the original volcano? Within the caldera itself, these flows go back 400,000 years–the oldest ones being those that make up Phantom Ship –the cool little island (some 50′ tall) in Crater Lake’s southeast corner.

Phantom Ship, in Crater Lake's southeast corner, is made of the caldera's oldest known rock, at 400,000 years old.

Phantom Ship, in Crater Lake’s southeast corner, is made of the caldera’s oldest known rock, at 400,000 years old.

I can’t resist.  The caldera formed about 7700 years ago, incredibly recent in Earth history–incredibly recent in just the history of Mt. Mazama!  To a young earth creationist though, that’s 1700 years before Earth formed.  Now THAT’S amazing!


Click here if you want to see a Geologic map of Crater Lake.
Or… for more pictures of Crater Lake, type its name into the Geology Search Engine.  Or… check out the new Roadside Geology of Oregon book!

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