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Touring the geologic map of the United States

Published in 1974 by the US Geological Survey, the geologic map of the United States beautifully lays out our country’s geology. If you’re stuck at home these days –as most of us are—you can gaze at this masterpiece and go anywhere! USAGeolMap-allllr

S Willamette Valley

Southern Willamette Valley. Eugene’s in the center of the map

At their simplest, geologic maps read like road maps: they tell you what rock unit or recent deposit forms the ground at a given place. So right here where I am in Eugene, Oregon, I can see that I live on “Q” –which stretches north up the Willamette Valley. “Q” stands for Quaternary-age material (2.5 million years to present), which is typically alluvial material –or sediment deposited by rivers and streams.  Just to the south of me lie a variety of older volcanic and sedimentary rocks. You can look them up in the map’s legend using their symbols. Here’s Rule #0: white areas, being mostly alluvium, mark low areas; colorful areas indicate bedrock, so are typically  higher in elevation.

The beauty of this map is that you can see the whole country at once, and using just a few rules, can immediately glean the underlying structure of a region.

For any of the maps, photos, and diagrams here, you can see a larger size if you click on the image.

x-cut block diagramlr

Rule 1: Rock bodies without internal contacts appear as color swatches (or “blobs”) as seen on the block diagram below. These rocks include intrusive igneous, undifferentiated metamorphic, and flat-lying sedimentary rock. (If you’re not sure what geologic contacts are, please see my recent post on the nature of geologic contacts.)

Rule 2: Rock bodies with internal contacts appear as stripes, which you can see from the diagram above and the photos below. These rocks are typically inclined sedimentary rocks –simply because the contacts between different rock units appear as lines where they intersect the Earth’s surface.  And notice that the steeper the rocks dip (their angle of inclination), the narrower the stripe becomes. In fact, the outcrop widths of vertically dipping beds equals their thickness!

aerial dipping beds

Aerial view of tilted Paleozoic-Mesozoic sedimentary rock at the edge of the Front Range, Colorado

Rule 3. You really can read a map like a cross-section –in fact, maps are basically the same things as cross-sections except they represent horizontal slices of the crust rather than vertical ones. As an example, you get an incomplete geologic history if you only use the cross-section in the block diagram above. The map view actually has all the information because it not only depicts the fold in map view, but also the fault.

Rule 4. Folded rocks typically appear on maps as zig-zags, or in the case of the single anticline in the block diagram above, as a half zig-zag. You get a full zig-zag if you have a paired anticline and syncline, like in the diagram below. The map expression results from the hinge of the fold being inclined –or plunging—rather than simply being horizontal. plunging folds

And here’s an air photo of a plunging fold in the Montana Fold-Thrust Belt.

Plunging anticline, SW Montana

Aerial view of north-plunging anticline in the Fold-Thrust Belt of SW Montana

Time Scale2020lr

Geologic Time Scale. If you don’t know the geologic time scale, click on the image to the side to see it at full size (like all the images here). As far as reading geologic maps, it’s very helpful to know the time scale and the abbreviations of the different time periods. So, “X, W, Y, Z” are all Precambrian (X=Archean; W, Y, Z=progressively younger Proterozoic); “Pz” means Paleozoic (541-252 million years ago), “Mz” means Mesozoic (252-66 million years ago) “Cz” means Cenozoic (66 million years ago to present). Of course, the Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic have further subdivisions with their own abbreviations that you can see on the full-size image.

 

The map.

boxes and regionslrNow for some features on the geologic map! This post is just an introduction, so I’ll stick to the boxed areas to illustrate some geological relations –and maybe throw in a few photos along the way. Then I’ll briefly discuss the localities shown in blue –and the rest of the map is for your own entertainment!

1. SnakeRPlain, IdahoBathlrMap 1. Snake River Plain and Yellowstone. The Snake River Plain, beneath that long flat stretch of Interstate 84, is covered by Quaternary age basalt flows. The landscape is flat because the lavas are flat –and so they show up as a big swatch of pink. Compare it to the ribbon-like bands to the north and south, mostly steeply inclined, folded, and faulted sedimentary rock of the Fold-Thrust Belt. The white stripes between the ribbons mark valleys (they’re filled with alluvial deposits) so we can infer that the ribbons, which mark bedrock, are mountains–which they are.

Notice how the Snake River Plain cuts across the ribbons of the Fold-Thrust Belt. It’s much younger: the lavas all erupted over the top of the older, deformed rock. You can actually see that relation if you drive US20 along the north side of Craters of the Moon National Monument.

And just beyond the Snake River Plain to the northeast, you can see Yellowstone, marked by rhyolites that also cover the older, surrounding rocks. Yellowstone is on trend with the Snake River Plain because they are both products of the southwestern drift of the North American Plate over the Yellowstone Hot Spot. Lying beneath the Snake River Plain Basalts are former rhyolitic calderas like Yellowstone. You can see some of these rhyolites at Shoshone Falls in Twin Falls, Idaho.

Shoshone Falls, Idaho (Pan)

Shoshone Falls spills over light-colored rhyolites. Rocks on the skyline are Snake River Plain Basalt, Idaho

Then there’s the Idaho Batholith, shown as the green swatch, which formed because of subduction along the western margin of North America during the Cretaceous Period. It’s of about the same age and origin as the Sierra Nevada in California.

2. Basin and RangelrMap 2. The Basin and Range Province. Described by the geologist Clarence Dutton in 1884 as “An army of caterpillars”, the Basin and Range consists of alternating basins, shown by the white color for alluvium, and ranges, shown by the colors, indicating various types of bedrock.

Geologically, the province is varied and complex, and I can’t begin to do it justice here except to say that much of the modern day landscape is a product of crustal extension –so many of the ranges are bound by normal faults, in a manner akin to the illustrations below.  It’s quite a wonderful part of the world and includes Death Valley, my go-to place for all things geology.

Basin and Range

Aerial view across the Basin and Range Province in Nevada.

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Tilted fault blocks. The photo of Death Valley region as tilted fault blocks coincides with the inset on the cross-section.

And notice how the southeastern part of Map 2 includes the ribbon-like patterns of the Fold Thrust Belt –and southeast of there, the broad swales of the Colorado Plateau! (Map 3).

Map 3. Colorado Plateau. In preparation for a field trip to the Colorado Plateau, my grad school thesis advisor described the region as “an island of tranquility surrounded by tumultuous Cenozoic deformation.” I’ll never forget that –so accurate a description and such flowery language!3. ColoPlateaulr

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Aerial view of incised meanders of the Green River cutting through flat-lying rock, Utah.

From the map, you can see that the region is marked by wide color swatches edged by narrow ribbons. The swatches mark approximately flat-lying sedimentary rocks and many of the ribbon-like edges mark monoclines, where the rock flexes from flat-lying to steeply dipping to flat-lying again, like the photo below of the San Rafael Swell. The monoclines formed in the early Cenozoic because of faulting in the underlying basement rock.

Monocline on the Colorado Plateau, Utah

Aerial view of the southern San Rafael Swell, Utah

In some places, such as Black Mesa (location “a”) in northern Arizona, you can see the ribbons surrounding the swatch. These areas typically mark individual plateaus, capped by flat-lying rocks with older rocks exposed on the slopes below. And in the Grand Canyon, the ribbon-like patterns similarly form by older rocks exposed downwards towards the river.

3a. GrandCyn+ pic

Geologic map and and photo of the Grand Canyon, AZ

And those little red dots? Those are bodies of intrusive igneous rock, including the La Sal, Abajo, and Henry mountains that intruded the Paleozoic and Mesozoic sedimentary rocks at various times during the Cenozoic.

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La Sal Mountains rise over flat-lying Paleozoic and Mesozoic rock of Canyonlands National Park, Utah

 

4. BlackHillslrMap 4. The Black Hills rise dramatically from the western plains because they’re a structural dome, a fold in which the rocks dip outwards in all directions, away from the oldest rock in the core. You can see that the rocks get younger out from the core if you click on the image to see it at full size. The core consists of bluish-gray rocks labeled “X” –which indicates an age from 2.5-1.6 billion years and the surrounding rocks are labeled “lPz” then “uPz” then “Tr”, “J”, and “K” to indicate “lower Paleozoic”, “Upper Paleozoic”, “Triassic”, “Jurassic”, and “Cretaceous” respectively. Notice how the rocks dip the steepest on the east side of the dome.

Dome

Now if you look at the state of Michigan on the USA map, you can see that it’s the same thing but in reverse. It’s a structural basin, with the youngest rock in the core!

Map 5. Transect across the Appalachians. Starting near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, you can see that rock is pretty flat-lying because it consists of lots of irregular swatches. The irregularity mostly comes from topographic changes that expose different rocks at different elevations, in a manner similar to some of the features in Map 3. But moving eastward, you hit the Valley and Ridge Province of the Appalachians: long ridges of folded Paleozoic sedimentary rock.5. NAppalachiantransectlre

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Channel deposit in the Triassic Newark Group, Connecticut.

And then you hit the teal-colored Newark Group, a series of Triassic sedimentary rocks deposited in basins as North America rifted away from Africa. It’s part of the Piedmont, a  section of the Appalachians that’s of lower topographic relief than the Valley and Ridge Province, but much more variable in its bedrock geology. It even includes fragments of oceanic lithosphere and mantle, shown in the navy blue color, and Proterozoic metamorphic rock, labeled “Ygn”.

Finally, you reach the Cretaceous sedimentary rocks of the Coastal Plain (shown in green), deposited after the Appalachians had formed and largely eroded. These rocks, as well as the overlying Tertiary rocks are relatively undeformed. Notice how the basal contact of the green “lK” cuts off the contacts within the Piedmont!

5a. NAppalachianCloseupThis inset of a close-up of the Valley and Ridge shows a classic example of the zig-zag pattern that results from plunging folds. You can determine the direction the folds plunge by looking at the ages of the rocks: anticlines contain the oldest rock in their cores whereas synclines contain the youngest rocks in their cores. Because anticlines plunge in the direction of their “noses” (where the outcrop pattern zigs or zags), we can infer that these folds are plunging to the northeast.

Map 6. Another view of the Appalachian Coastal Plain. Here’s a great example of a regional, angular unconformity, between the undeformed Cretaceous and younger rocks of the Coastal Plain and the highly deformed rocks of the Appalachians.6. S Appalachianslr

And of course, there’s so much more!

You can download a full-sized version of this map from the United States Geological Survey at https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/70136641. It comes in 3 parts: West half, east half, legend.

In the meantime, here are some of my favorite other features:

The Columbia River Basalt Group (orange swatch) that erupted between 16-6 million years ago and covers some 70,000 square miles of Washington, Oregon, and western Idaho.

Basalt flows of the Columbia River Basalt Group, Imnaha Canyon,

Lava flows of the Columbia River Basalt Group in eastern Oregon

The Lewis Thrust along the east edge Glacier National Park. The fault brings Proterozoic sedimentary rock of the “Belt Supergroup” over Cretaceous sandstone. It’s a very low angle fault so displays a very irregular trace as it winds in and out of the valleys, kind of like a contour line.

color reversal: KODAK UNIVERSAL K14. SBA settings neutral SBA off, color SBA on

Lewis Thrust, which lies just above the tree line, places Proterozoic rock over Cretaceous rock.

The Ogallala Formation (yellow swatch), only about 6-2 million years old and up to 1000 feet in thickness, covers more than 170,000 square miles of the Great Plains –and provides drinking and irrigation water to the vast majority of people in the region.

Deposits of the Mississippi River (gray). From the Mississippi delta all the way to Cairo, Illinois, the river’s deposited Quaternary alluvium on top rocks as old as Eocene.

Meander loops on Mississippi River, Louisiana

Aerial view of meander loops on Mississippi River, Louisiana

Woohoo!


Incidentally, all the photos shown here are available for free download from my geology photo website. It has a search function that accesses more than 3500 images I’ve taken over more than 35 years.

 

Aerial geology photos– favorites from commercial flights of 2019

I always try for window seats when flying and I always try to shoot photos out the window –with varying results! So often, the window’s badly scratched, there are clouds, it’s hazy, the sun angle’s wrong –there are myriad factors that can make good photography almost impossible from a commercial jet. Last year though, I had a few amazing flights with clear skies and a great window seat –and I’ve now loaded nearly 100 images onto my website for free download. Here are 10 of my favorites, in no particular order. You can click on them to see them at a larger size. They’re even bigger on my website.

Mt. Shasta at sunset. Volumetrically, the biggest of the Cascade Volcanoes, Mt. Shasta last erupted between 2-300 years ago –and it’s spawned over 70 mudflows in the past 1000 years. From the photo, you can see how the volcano’s actually a combination of at least 3 volcanoes, including Shastina, which erupted about 11,000 years ago.

Mt. Shasta at sunset, California

Aerial view of Mt. Shasta, a Cascades stratovolcano in northern California.

If you want to see more aerials of Mt. Shasta (shot during the day) –and from a small plane, go to the search page on my website and type in “Shasta”.

 

Meteor Crater, Arizona.  Wow –I’ve ALWAYS wanted to get a photo of Meteor Crater from the air –and suddenly, on a flight from Phoenix to Denver, there it was!

Meteor Crater, Arizona

Aerial view of Meteor Crater, Arizona

Meteor Crater, also called Barringer Crater, formed by the impact of a meteorite some 50,000 years ago. It measures 3900 feet in diameter and about 560 feet deep. The meteorite, called the Canyon Diablo Meteorite, was about 50 meters across.

 

Dakota Hogback and Colorado Front Range, near Morrison, Colorado. Same flight as Meteor Crater –and another photo I’d longed to take. It really isn’t the prettiest photo, BUT, it shows the Cretaceous Dakota Hogback angling from the bottom left of the photo northwards along the range and Red Rocks Amphitheater in the center –then everything behind Red Rocks, including the peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park in the background, consist of Proterozoic basement rock.

Hogback and Colorado Front Range

Aerial view of hogback of Cretaceous Dakota Formation and Colorado Front Range.

 

Distributary channels on delta, Texas Gulf Coast. I just thought this one was really pretty. Geologically, it shows how rivers divide into many distributary channels when they encounter the super low gradients of deltas. And whoever thought that flying into Houston could be so exciting!

Distributary channels on delta, Texas Gulf Coast

Distributary channels on delta, Texas Gulf Coast

 


Meander bends on the Mississippi River.
My mother lives in Florida, so I always fly over the Mississippi River when I go visit –but I was never able to take a decent photo until my return trip last October, when the air was clear, and our flight path passed just north of New Orleans. Those sweeping arms of each meander are about 5 miles long!

Meander bends on Mississippi River, Louisiana

Meander bends on the Mississippi River floodplain, Louisiana

 

Salt Evaporators, San Francisco Bay. Flying into San Francisco is always great because you get to see the incredible evaporation ponds near the south end of the bay. I always love the colors, caused by differing concentrations of algae –which respond to differences in salinity. And for some reason, salt deposits always spark my imagination. Salt covers the floor of Death Valley, a place where I do most of my research, and Permian salt deposits play a big role in the geology of much of southeastern Utah, another place I know and love.

Salt evaporators, San Francisco Bay, California

Salt evaporators, San Francisco Bay, California

 

Bonneville Salt Flats and Newfoundland Mountains, Utah. And then there are the Bonneville Salt Flats! They’re so vast –how I’d love the time to explore them. They formed by evaporation of Pleistocene Lake Bonneville, the ancestor of today’s Great Salt Lake. When the climate was wetter during the Ice Age, Lake Bonneville was practically an inland sea –and this photo shows just a small part of it.

Bonneville Salt Flats and Newfoundland Mtns, Utah

Aerial view of Bonneville Salt Flats and Newfoundland Mountains

 

Stranded meander loop on the Colorado River. I like this photo because it speaks to the evolution of this stretch of the Colorado River. Just left of center, you can see an old meander loop –and it’s at a much higher elevation than today’s channel. At one time, the Colorado River flowed around that loop, but after breaching the divide and stranding it as an oxbow, it proceeded to cut its channel deeper and left the oxbow at a higher elevation.

Stranded meander loop, Colorado River, Colorado

Stranded meander loop (oxbow) on the Colorado River, eastern Utah

 

San Andreas fault zone and San Francisco. See those skinny lakes running diagonally through the center of the photo? They’re the Upper and Lower Crystal Springs Reservoirs –and they’re right on the San Andreas Fault. And you can see just how close San Francisco is to the fault.  As the boundary between the Pacific and North American Plates, its total displacement is about 200 miles. See this previous post for more photos of the San Andreas fault.

San Andreas fault zone and San Francisco

San Andreas fault zone and San Francisco

 

And my favorite: Aerial view of the Green River flowing through the Split Mountain Anticline –at Dinosaur National Monument, Utah-Colorado. Another photo I’ve so longed to shoot –but didn’t have the opportunity until last year.

The Green River cuts right across the anticline rather than flowing around it. It’s either an antecedent river, which cut down across the fold as it grew –or a superposed one, having established its channel in younger, more homogeneous rock before cutting down into the harder, folded rock. You can also see how the anticline plunges westward (left) because that’s the direction of its “nose” –or the direction the fold limbs come together. The quarry, for Dinosaur National Monument, which you can visit and see dinosaur bones in the original Jurassic bedrock, is in the hills at the far lower left corner of the photo.

Split Mountain Anticline, Utah-Colo

Split Mountain anticline and Green River, Utah-Colorado

 

So these are my ten favorites from 2019. Thanks for looking! There are 88 more on my website, at slightly higher resolutions and for free download. They include aerials of the Sierra Nevada and Owens Valley, the Colorado Rockies, including the San Juan Volcanic Field, incised rivers on the Colorado Plateau, and even the Book Cliffs in eastern Colorado. Just go to my geology photo website, and in the search function type “aerial, 2019” –and 98 photos will pop up. Boom!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Science got it right… Maybe we can now accept the reality of climate change?

Along with a zillion other people in the US, I witnessed the total solar eclipse today. Yes, it was amazing and yes, I feel somewhat addicted. The quality of light just before totality was something I’d never before experienced –and the sun’s flash just as it reappeared was something I’ll never forget.  Apparently the next one will be in South America on July 2, 2019–and the next one in the US will be April 8, 2024. Oooh!

Total Eclipse of the sun (170821-19)

Sun’s corona as seen during the total solar eclipse, August 21, 2017 from Salem, Oregon.

Amazing that us humans can accurately predict these phenomena –to the exact place and time –to the second. Seems like our predictions work! These predictions, of course, are grounded in the physical sciences.

At the same time, many people insist that scientists are mistaken or misguided when they predict global climate change.  I wonder if any of those people saw the eclipse. If so, they might want to reflect on their contradiction.

That’s all.

Glacier in retreat, Athabasca Glacier, Alberta, Canada (120713-65).

This monument marks the position of the front of the Athabasca Glacier of Alberta, Canada in the year 2000. Photo taken in 2012.

Washington’s waterfalls–behind each one is a rock!

Of all the many reasons why waterfalls are great, here’s another: they expose bedrock! And that bedrock tells a story extending back in time long long before the waterfall. This posting describes 9 waterfalls that together paint a partial picture of Washington’s geologic history. The photos and diagrams will all appear in my forthcoming book Roadside Geology of Washington (Mountain Press) that I wrote with Darrel Cowan of the University of Washington.

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Rainbow falls along WA 6 in the Coast Range

 

And waterfalls in heavily forested areas are especially great because they may give the only view of bedrock for miles around! Take Rainbow Falls, for example–the small waterfall on the left. It’s in Washington’s Coast Range along State Highway 6–a place where a roadside geologist could otherwise fall into total despair for lack of good rock exposure. But this beautiful waterfall exposes a lava flow of the Grande Ronde Basalt, which belongs to the Columbia River Basalt Group. Significant? Yes!

This lava erupted in southeastern Washington and northeastern Oregon between about 16 and 15.6 million years ago and completely flooded the landscape of northern Oregon and southern Washington. We know how extensive these flows are because we can see them–and they cover the whole region. The photo below shows them at Palouse Falls in the eastern part of Washington. Take a look at my earlier blog post about the Columbia River Basalt Group? (includes 15 photos and a map).

Read more…

Landscape and Rock–4 favorite photos from 2015

Landscape and bedrock… seems we seldom connect the two. We all like beautiful landscapes, but most of us don’t ask how they formed –and even fewer of us think about the story told by the rocks that lie beneath it all. Those make two time scales, the faster one of landscape evolution and the much slower one of the rock record. Considering that we live in our present-day human time scale, it’s no wonder there’s a disconnect!

Take this photo of Mt. Shuksan in northern Washington. My daughter Meg and I drove up to the parking lot at Heather Meadows and went for a quick hike to stretch our legs and take some pictures just before sunset.We had about a half hour before the light faded –and all I could think about was taking a photo of this amazing mountain. But the geology? What??

151023-22

1. Mt. Shuksan and moonrise, northern Washington Cascades.

Thankfully, I’d been there in September scoping out a possible field project with a new grad student, and had the time to reflect… on time. From the ridge we hiked, shown as the dark area in the lower left corner of the left-hand photo below, we could almost feel Shuksan’s glaciers sculpting the mountain into its present shape. Certainly, that process is imperceptibly slow by human standards.

Shuksan combo

Mt. Shuksan: its glaciated NW side, summit, and outcrop of the Bell Pass Melange.

But the glaciers are sculpting bedrock –and that bedrock reveals its own story, grounded in a much longer time scale.

It turns out that the rock of Mt. Shuksan formed over tens of millions of years on three separate fragments of Earth’s lithosphere, called terranes. These terranes came together along faults that were then accreted to North America sometime during the Cretaceous. At the top of the peak you can find rock of the Easton Terrane. The Easton Terrane contains blueschist, a metamorphic rock that forms under conditions of high pressures and relatively low temperatures, such as deep in a subduction zone. Below that lies the Bell Pass Melange (right photo) –unmetamorphosed rock that is wonderfully messed up. And below that lies volcanic and sedimentary rock of the Chilliwack Group.

Here’s another of my favorites from 2015: the Keystone Thrust! It’s an easy picture to take –you just need to fly into the Las Vegas airport from the north or south, and you fly right over it. It’s the contact between the gray ledgey (ledgy? ledgeee?) rock on the left and the tan cliffs that go up the middle of the photo.

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2. Keystone Thrust fault, Nevada–gray Cambrian ridges over tan Jurassic cliffs.

The gray rock is part of the Cambrian Bonanza King Formation, which is mostly limestone, and the tan cliffs consist of  Jurassic Aztec Sandstone. Cambrian, being the time period from about 540-485 million years, is a lot older than the Jurassic, which spanned the time 200-145 million years ago. Older rock over younger rock like that requires a thrust fault.

Talk about geologic history… the thrust fault formed during a period of mountain building during the Cretaceous Period, some 100-70 million years ago, long before the present mountains. And the rocks? The limestone formed in a shallow marine environment and the sandstone in a sand “sea” of the same scale as today’s Sahara Desert. We know it was that large because the Aztec Sandstone is the same rock as the Navajo Sandstone in Zion and Arches national parks.

Cambrian-Jurassic

left: Limestone of the Cambrian Bonanza King Formation near Death Valley; right: Cross-bedded sandstone of the Jurassic Navajo Sandstone in Zion NP, Utah.

So… the photo shows cliffs and ledges made of rocks that tell a story of different landscapes that spans 100s of millions of years. But today’s cliffs and ledges are young, having formed by erosion of the much older rock.  Then I flew over it in about 30 seconds.

At Beach 2 near Shi Shi Beach in Washington State are some incredible sea stacks, left standing (temporarily) as the sea erodes the headlands. The sea stack and arch in the photo below illustrates the continuous nature of this erosion. Once the arch fails, the seaward side of the headland will be isolated as another sea stack, larger, but really no different than the sea stack to its left. And so it goes.

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3. Sea arch and headland at Beach 2, Olympic Coast, Washington.

And of course, the headland’s made of rock that tells its own story –of  deposition offshore and getting scrunched up while getting added to the edge of the continent.

ShiShi

Bedrock at Beach 2 consists mostly of sandstone and breccia. The white fragment is limestone mixed with sandstone fragments.

And finally, my last “favorite”. It’s of an unnamed glacial valley in SE Alaska. My daughter and I flew by it in a small plane en route to Haines, Alaska to visit my cousin and his wife. More amazing landscape–carved by glaciers a long time ago. But as you can expect, the rock that makes it up is even older and tells it’s own story.

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4. Glacial Valley cutting into Chilkat Mountains, SE Alaska.

Of course, this message of three time scales, the human, the landscape, and the rock-record time scale applies everywhere we go. Ironically, we’re usually in a hurry. I wish I kept it in mind more often, as it might slow me down a little.

Here’s to 2015 –and to 2016.

To see or download these four images at higher resolutions, please visit my webpage: favorite 10 geology photos of 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conglomerate!

A trip to Death Valley over Thanksgiving two weeks ago reignited all sorts of things in my brain, one of which being my love of conglomerate. Honestly, conglomerate HAS to be the coolest rock!

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Tilted conglomerate in Furnace Creek Wash, Death Valley.

Just look at this stuff! Just like any good clastic sedimentary rock, it consists of particles of older rock–but with conglomerate, you can easily see those particles. Each of those particles opens a different door to experiencing deep geologic time.

As an example, look at the conglomerate below, from the Kootenai Formation of SW Montana. It contains many different cobbles of light gray and dark gray quartzite and pebbles of black chert. The quartzite came the Quadrant Formation and chert from the Phosphoria Formation. So just at first glance, you can see that this conglomerate in the Kootenai contains actual pieces of two other older rock units.

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Conglomerate of the Kootenai Formation, SW Montana.

But consider this: The Quadrant formed as coastal sand dunes during the Pennsylvanian Period, between about 320-300 million years ago and the Phosphoria chert accumulated in a deep marine environment during the Permian, from about 300-250 million years ago. The Kootenai formed as river deposits during the early part of the Cretaceous Period, about 120 million years ago. All those are now together as one.

Similar to the modern river below (except for the glaciers), the Kootenai rivers transported gravel away from highlands –the highlands being made of much older rock that was uplifted and exposed to erosion. That older rock speaks to long gone periods of Earth history while the gravel speaks to the day it’s deposited.

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Athabasca River in Jasper National Park, Alberta

But this is where my head starts to spin: the modern gravel is made of rounded fragments of old rock –so when you look at a conglomerate, you glimpse at least two time periods at once: you see the conglomerate, which reflects a river or alluvial fan –or any environment near a bedrock source– and you also see the particles, which formed in even older environments.

And it gets worse –or better. What happens when you see a conglomerate eroding? The conglomerate is breaking up into modern sediment, which consists of pieces of older sediment –that at one time was modern sediment that used to be older sediment?  Look at the pebbles below. I keep them in a rusty metal camping cup on a table in my office.

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“Recycled” pebbles of the Kootenai Formation.

These stream pebbles eroded out of the Kootenai conglomerate. So… they’re simultaneously modern stream pebbles and ancient ones –AND… they originated as the Quadrant and Phosphoria Formations. Four periods of time, spanning 300 million years, all come together at once.

And if that’s not enough, those conglomerates in Death Valley? They  contain particles of… conglomerate! Look! The arrow in the left photo points to the boulder of conglomerate on the right. If you click on the photos, you can see them enlarged.

All those particles, which are now eroding and becoming modern sediment, were yesterday’s sediment. And the conglomerate boulder? It too is becoming “modern sediment” and it too was “yesterday’s sediment” when it was deposited on an alluvial fan with the rest of the material. However, it goes a step further: its pebbles and cobbles were both “modern” and “yesterday’s” sediment at a still older time. And before that? Those pebbles and cobbles eroded from even older rock units, some of which date from the Cambrian, about 500 million years ago.

For fun, here’s a photo of another conglomerate boulder.

Conglomerate clast in conglomerate

Conglomerate boulder in conglomerate of the Furnace Creek Formation, Death Valley, CA.

 

I can’t help but wonder how Young Earth Creationists would deal with these rocks. Given their story of the Grand Canyon, in which the Paleozoic section was deposited during early stages of “The Flood” and the canyon was carved during the later stages (they really do say that too!), they’d probably roll out that same blanket answer: The Flood. End of discussion. No questioning, no wondering.

In my opinion, one of the beautiful things about geology is that we’re always questioning and wondering.

 

 

for more geology photos, please visit my website.

 

 

 

 

Rockin’ countertops–geologic time in our kitchens and bathrooms!

I stopped by a “granite” supplier yesterday –the kind of place that sells “granite” and “marble” slabs for countertops.  Besides the fact that almost none of the slabs were actually granite or marble, they were spectacular rocks that showed wonderful wonderful detail. I nearly gushed at the idea of taking a geology field trip there.  It’s local, and you seldom find exposures like this anywhere else!

slabs of polished rock at a "granite" warehouse --not sure if any of this is actually granite, but it all reflects geologic time.

slabs of polished rock at a “granite” warehouse –most of it’s not actually granite, but it all reflects geologic time.

Generally speaking, “granite” in countertop language means “igneous” or “metamorphic” –crystalline rocks that form miles beneath Earth’s surface and so require great lengths of time to reach the surface where they can be quarried.  When I first started this blog, geologic time with respect to igneous and metamorphic rocks were some of the first things I wrote about –it’s such pervasive and important stuff.

So the main point is that your friend’s kitchen with “granite” countertops surrounds you with geologic time every time you walk in there!

But check out that green polka-dotted rock on the right side of the photo.  Full of rounded cobbles –it’s a conglomerate, originating by sedimentary processes on Earth’s surface. Does it indicate great lengths of geologic time? A Young Earth Creationist might say it were a deposit of “the Flood” and end-of-story.

Here’s a closer look:

Polished conglomerate --individual cobbles are metamorphic rocks. The green color comes from the mineral chlorite.

Polished conglomerate –individual cobbles are metamorphic rocks. The green color of the background material comes from the mineral chlorite. That’s a penny (on the left) for scale.

The conglomerate is made of beautifully rounded cobbles and small boulders that are almost entirely metamorphic in origin.  Most of them are gneisses, which form at especially high grades of metamorphism, typical of depths greater than 8 or 10 miles!  After a (long) period of uplift and erosion, the rock was exposed to erosion, gradually breaking into fragments, which eventually became these rounded cobbles, and ended up in the bottom of a big stream channel or on a gravel bar somewhere.

But that’s not the end of the story, because this deposit of rounded cobbles itself became metamorphosed –so it had to get buried again. We know that because the rock is pervaded by the mineral chlorite, which gives the rock its green color.  Chlorite requires metamorphism to form.  Granted, the rock isn’t highly metamorphosed –there’s no metamorphic layering and chlorite forms at low metamorphic temperatures– but it’s metamorphic nonetheless, typical of depths of a few miles beneath the surface.

And if you look even closer, you can see some of the effects of the reburial pressures: the edges of some of the cobbles poke into some of the other ones. This impingement is a result of the stress concentrations that naturally occur along points of contact.  The high stress causes the less soluble rocks to slowly dissolve into the other, more soluble rock.

cobbles, impinging into each other. Stars on right photo show locations.

cobbles, impinging into each other. Stars on right photo show locations.

I’m already jealous of the person who’s going to buy this slab of rock. It tells a story that begins with 1) metamorphic rock forming deep in the crust, then 2) a long period of uplift and erosion to expose the rocks, then 3) erosion, rounding, and deposition of the metamorphic cobbles, 4) reburial to the somewhat shallow depths of a mile or two–maybe more, 5) more uplift and erosion to expose the meta-sedimentary deposit, 6) Erosion by human beings.

And me? Personally, I’d like to make a shower stall or a bathtub out of this rock –can you imagine???


Some links you might like:
a blog I like that’s about science and creationism
another blog about an ancient Earth and deep time
my original song “Don’t take it for Granite“. (adds some levity?)
Geology photos for free download.

 

 

 

Cambrian Limestone, Death Valley National Park, California.

Limestone’s a common sedimentary rock –it’s made from calcium carbonate.  The calcium carbonate is precipitated in shallow marine conditions with the help of biological activity, most commonly algae, but also by the many invertebrates that form shells.  This material then settles to the ocean bottom as a lime-rich mud and if the conditions are right, eventually becomes rock.

Compared with many other sedimentary rocks, limestone deposits can accumulate pretty rapidly –about 1 meter per thousand years in many cases –and even two or three times that under optimal circumstances.  These rates are for uncompacted sediment, and a great deal of compaction occurs as the sediment turns into rock.  Additionally, if the deposit is to accumulate to any significant thickness, the crust on which it is deposited must also subside.

Thousands of feet of limestone, deposited during the Cambrian Period, are exposed in the Death Valley region. Click here for a slideshow of Death Valley geology

 

So all this limestone in Death Valley was deposited as a bunch of horizontal layers in a shallow marine setting –not too deep, or light wouldn’t penetrate to the seafloor to allow photosynthesis –key to the ecosystem that produced the calcium carbonate in the first place.  And since it was deposited, it’s been uplifted and tilted and eroded.

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