geologictimepics

Geology and Geologic Time through Photographs

Archive for the tag “alkali”

Death Valley National Park– Geology Overload!

Death Valley… I can’t wait! Tomorrow this time, I’ll be walking on the salt pan with my structural geology students, gawking at the incredible mountain front –and soon after that, we’ll be immersed in fault zones, fractures, and fabrics!

Death Valley salt pan at sunrise.

Death Valley salt pan at sunrise.

Death Valley presents incredible opportunities for all sorts of geology, especially geologic time; you can look just about anywhere to see and feel it.  Take the salt pan.  It really is salt –you can sprinkle it on your sandwich if you want.  It’s there because the valley floor periodically floods with rainwater.  As the rainwater evaporates, dissolved salt in the water precipitates.  And some 10,000 years ago, Death Valley was filled by a 600′ deep lake, which evaporated, leaving behind more salt. Before that, more shallow flooding and more lakes.

Aerial view of faulted front of the Black Mountains.

Aerial view of faulted front of the Black Mountains.

But the basin is more than 4 miles deep in some places! It’s not all salt, because there are a lot of gravel and sand deposits, but a lot of it is salt.  That depth speaks to geologically fast accumulation rates, because it all had to accumulate since Death Valley formed –probably in the last 2 or 3 million years.  But still, 2 or 3 million years is way past our realm of experience.

Hiker in the Funeral Mountains of Death Valley.

Hiker in the Funeral Mountains of Death Valley.

To really go back in geologic time though, you need to look at the mountains. Most of the mountains contain Upper Precambrian through Paleozoic sedimentary rock, most of which accumulated in shallow marine environments.  There’s a thickness of more than 30,000 feet of sedimentary rock exposed in Death Valley! Deposited layer after layer, you can only imagine how long that took.

We can measure the thickness of the rock because it’s no longer in its original horizontal position.  The ones in the photo above were tilted by faulting –which occurred during the period of crustal extension that formed Death Valley today.  The rocks in the photo below were folded –by a period of crustal shortening that took place long before the modern extension.  The folding occurred during the Mesozoic Era –more than 65 million years ago.

Aerial view of Titus Canyon Anticline.

Aerial view of Titus Canyon Anticline.

Above the Upper Precambrian to Paleozoic rock are thousands of feet of volcanic and sedimentary rock, tilted and faulted, but not folded. They reveal many of the details of the crustal extension that eventually formed today’s landscape.  For example, the photo below shows Ryan Mesa in upper Furnace Creek Wash.  In this place, the main period of extensional faulting predates the formation of modern Death Valley.  Look at the photo to see that faulting must have stopped before eruption of the dark-colored basalt flows.  Notice that there has to be a fault underneath the talus cones that separates the Artist Dr. Formation on the left from the Furnace Creek Formation on the right.  Because the fault does not cut the basalt though, it has to be older.  Those basalts are 4 million years old, older than modern Death Valley.  –And that’s the old mining camp of Ryan perched on the talus.

Angular unconformity at Ryan Mesa: 4 Ma basalt flows overlying faulted Artist Drive (left) and Furnace Creek (right) formations.

Angular unconformity at Ryan Mesa: 4 Ma basalt flows overlying faulted Artist Drive (left) and Furnace Creek (right) formations.

And beneath it all? Still older rock!  There’s some 5,000 feet of even older Precambrian sedimentary rock, called the “Pahrump Group” beneath the 30,000 feet of Upper Precambrian and Paleozoic rock–and below that, Precambrian metamorphic rock.  It’s called the “basement complex” because it’s the lowest stuff.  Here’s a photo.

pegmatite dike and sill intruding mylonitic gneiss

pegmatite dike and sill intruding gneiss

The pegmatite (the light-colored intrusive rock) is actually quite young–I think our U-Pb age was 55 Ma –but the gneiss is much older, with a U-Pb age of 1.7 billion years.  Billion!  Forget about the U-Pb age though.  These rocks form miles beneath Earth’s surface –and here they are, at the surface for us to see. Without knowing their age, you’re looking at deep geologic time because of the long period of uplift and erosion required to bring them to the surface.  And it happened before all those other events that described earlier.

THIS is why, when visiting Death Valley, you need to explore the canyons and mountains –not to mention the incredible views, silence, stillness…


Some links:
Geologic map of Death Valley for free download
Slideshow of Death Valley geology photos

–or better yet, type “Death Valley” into the geology photo search function on my website!

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.

Lakes drying up in southeastern Oregon –geologically, very quickly

Lake Abert’s one of the coolest lakes in Oregon –in my opinion.  It’s got birds along its shoreline because it hosts a huge population of brine shrimp (which smell, by the way).  It has the brine shrimp because it doesn’t have any fish –and it doesn’t have fish because it’s an alkali lake in a closed basin, full of salt. The water that goes into this lake stays there, until it evaporates.  When it evaporates, it leaves behind more salt.

Birds along small creek that empties into Lake Abert, Oregon.

Birds along small creek that empties into Lake Abert, Oregon.

Over the past few years, the lake seems to be drying up faster than usual–which makes all the sense in the world because we’ve had less rainfall than usual over the past few years.  There’s still water, but it’s noticeably farther out into the “lake” than before.  That’s certainly fast.  We, as humans, can watch this lake dry up over just a few years.

salt deposits at Lake Abert, Oregon

salt deposits at Lake Abert, Oregon, looking northward.  Abert Rim, along the right side of the photo, is uplifted along a normal fault.

But think of what the lake was 20,000 years ago, at the height of the last glaciation!  The physiographic map below shows Lake Abert (along US 395) as part of the much larger Lake Chewaucan, which included the even larger Summer Lake basin to the west.  There’s all sorts of evidence for this earlier lake: old shorelines, deposits at elevations well above the modern lake, gravel bars.  And Lake Chewaucan was only one of many such Pleistocene, or “pluvial” lakes that occupied closed basins in the Oregon and Nevada Basin and Range.

Distribution of Pleistocene lakes in the southern Oregon Basin and Range.

Distribution of Pleistocene lakes in the southern Oregon Basin and Range.

Of course these ages do a “time-number” on me.  20,000 years is a short time, geologically.  So just yesterday, this region had many of these large large lakes –and in just a short time, they’ve dwindled to isolated remnants.  But in just the last 5 years, those remnants have dwindled even more.  It’s dramatic.  It’s frightening.

Odd too –those Young Earth Creation types think that planet Earth is younger than Lake Chewaucan!  And really?  Lake Chewaucan couldn’t have formed unless there was a basin there –and do you see the cliffs on the right (east) side of the lake?  That’s Abert Rim, uplifted by a big normal fault –which is what formed the basin.  So, the 2000′ of  uplift on this fault must be older than the lake, which is older than planet Earth!  Cool!


For more photos of Lake Abert, type “Lake Abert” into the geology search engine.
For information about the completely new (available in November, 2014) Roadside Geology of Oregon book.

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