Geology and Geologic Time through Photographs

Archive for the tag “basalt flow”

Columbia River Basalt Group–outrageous!

I can’t stop thinking about the Columbia River Basalt Group–the series of basalt flows that blanketed so much of my state of Oregon about 15 million years ago. Abbreviated as “CRBG”, it covers a lot of Washington too, as well as parts of western Idaho and northern Nevada. If you’re driving across those parts, you’ll likely travel miles and miles and miles over basalt basalt basalt –and that causes some people to say (mistakenly) that it’s boring. Some geologists even get grumpy about it because it covers up all the older rock.  Outrageous!

Lava flows of the CRBG in northern Oregon and Mt. Adams of southern Washington.  With views like this, how can you say the CRBG is boring? (Location "F" on map below.)

Lava flows of the CRBG in northern Oregon and Mt. Adams of southern Washington. With views like this, how can you say the CRBG is boring? (Photo “F” on map below.)

But of course, the CRBG is outrageous for a whole host of other reasons. For one thing, it really is huge: it covers an area of more than 77,000 square miles with a volume of more than 52,000 cubic miles –that’s more than 50x the volume of air between the north and south rims of the Grand Canyon! Really—the National Park Service estimated the volume of “Grand Canyon Air” to be about 1,000 cubic miles. It also erupted over a fairly short period of time: from about 17 million years ago to 6 million –but 96% of it erupted between 17 and 14.5 million years ago.


And… most of it erupted from fissures in eastern Oregon and Washington –the roots of which are now preserved as dikes. And… many of the lavas made it all the way to the Pacific Ocean. And… (here’s the outrageous part), on reaching the Pacific, many of the flows re-intruded into the existing sediments and sedimentary rocks along the coastline to form their own magma chambers, some of which were thousands of feet thick! AND… some basaltic magma from those chambers then re-intruded the country rock to form dikes –and some even re-erupted on the seafloor!

All these outrageous details. Now think about them for a moment. They really happened. That’s what I find so wonderful and amazing about geology. We learn all these things and we put them in some part of our consciousness that doesn’t really let them soak in –but once in awhile they do.

Finally, the CRBG is beautiful and forms beautiful landscapes! Below are some photos to illustrate it, from feeder dikes in eastern Oregon to sea stacks eroded from a giant sill on the coast.

And I’ll save my snarky comments about young earth creationism for another post.

–and at the bottom, I’m adding a short glossary to explain some of the terms.

Ok… the photos!


Photo A. Steens Mountain and Alvord Desert.  The CRBG started with eruption of the Steens Basalt about 16.7 million years ago, which makes up the upper 3000′ or so of Steens Mountain, shown here.  Steens Mountain is one of our state treasures –it’s a fault-block mountain, uplifted by Basin-Range extension along a normal fault along its eastern side.

Fault-bounded east front of Steens Mountain and Alvord Desert.

Fault-bounded east front of Steens Mountain; mudcracked playa of Alvord Desert in foreground.


Photo B. Steens Basalt at Abert Rim. Like most of the CRBG, The Steens basalt covered outrageously huge areas.  It also makes up the cliffs above Lake Abert about 75 miles to the east.  Called Abert Rim, the cliffs are also uplifted by a big normal fault.  Lake Abert occupies the downdropped basin.  And much of the Steens basalt consists of this really distinctive porphyry with outrageously big plagioclase crystals!

Photo B.  Steens Basalt at Lake Abert; Abert Rim in background.

Photo B. Steens Basalt at Lake Abert; Abert Rim in background.


Photos C-1, C-2. CRBG dikes.  One reason we know that the CRBG erupted from fissures is that we can see their roots, as dikes cutting through older rock.  C-1 shows a dike cutting through previously erupted basalt flows in Grande Ronde Canyon, Washington; C-2 shows some narrow little dikes cutting accreted rock of the Triassic Martin Bridge Limestone. Photos 5 and 6 of my last post shows some aerial photos and describes this area in more detail.C. Feeder dikes


Photo D. Imnaha Canyon. The next major unit of the CRBG is the Imnaha Basalt, followed by the Grande Ronde Basalt.  Both these units erupted from sites in northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington.  This view of Imnaha Canyon in Oregon shows the Imnaha Basalt near the bottom and the Grande Ronde Basalt at the top.

Photo D.  Imnaha Canyon, Oregon.

Photo D. Imnaha Canyon, Oregon.


Photo E. Picture Gorge Basalt at the Painted Hills.  And the next youngest unit of the CRBG was the Picture Gorge Basalt, shown capping the ridge in the background. Unlike most of the CRBG, the Picture Gorge Basalt originated in central Oregon, not too far from here–there’s a whole swarm of dikes near the town of Monument, Oregon.

The colorful hills in the foreground make up the Painted Hills of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, another of our state treasures.  I like this photo because it gives a sense of what lies beneath the CRBG –and the John Day Fossil Beds are outrageous in their own way–but save that for another time.



Photo F. Lava Flows of the CRBG and Mt. Adams, a modern volcano of the High Cascades in Washington.  See the first picture at the top of the post!


Photo G. Wanapum Basalt near The Dalles. This exposure of the Wanapum Basalt, which overlies the Picture Gorge Basalt, tells the story of the CRBG as it flowed into and filled a lake along the Columbia River some 15 million years ago. At the bottom of the flow, pillow basalt formed as the lava poured into the lake, while the upper part of the flow shows the columnar jointing typical of basalt that flows across land.  What’s more, this exposure lies less than a mile off I-84 in The Dalles, Oregon.  See page 251 of the new Roadside Geology of Oregon for another photo and more description!

Photo G. Single flow of Wanapum Basalt near The Dalles, Oregon.

Photo G. Single flow of Wanapum Basalt near The Dalles, Oregon.


Photo H.  Upper North Falls, Silver Falls State Park, Oregon.  This wonderful state park hosts about a zillion waterfalls that spill over cliffs of CRBG, 14 of which lie in the main river channels of the north and south forks of Silver Creek.  The falls depicted in this photo are 136 feet high!

Upper North Falls at Silver Falls State Park, OR.  The roof of the alcove consists of Wanapum Basalt, the bedrock near the river channel consists of Grande Ronde Basalt.

Upper North Falls at Silver Falls State Park. The roof of the alcove consists of Wanapum Basalt, the bedrock near the river consists of Grande Ronde Basalt.

Notice that the picture’s taken from behind the water. The trail goes into a big alcove, so it’s easy and safe.  The alcove formed because this particular waterfall crosses the contact between the Wanapum Basalt and the underlying Grande Ronde Basalt –and there is a 10-20′ thick, easily eroded, sedimentary unit between the two.  Remember the Grande Ronde Basalt –from Photo D in northeastern Oregon? Here it is, just east of Salem!


Photo I.  Saddle Mountain, northern Coast Range.  Here starts the truly outrageous part of the CRBG story.  Saddle Mountain, the highest point in the northern Coast Ranges, consists almost entirely of the rock on the right: brecciated pillow basalt, full of the alteration mineral palagonite. Apparently, the basalt started to flow into the ocean at about here, formed pillows and fragmented like crazy in the water-lava explosions. I. Saddle Mtn

But!  These flows were likely confined too –such as in a submarine canyon–which allowed them to develop enough of a pressure gradient to intrude downward into bedding surfaces, faults, and fractures of the Astoria Formation.  The diagram below illustrates the process in cross-section.  The diagram also give a context for photos I-L.  intrusive CRBG diagram4


Photo J.  Sea stacks of intrusive Columbia River Basalt Group at Ecola State Park.  Some of the magma chambers were several thousand feet thick and are now exposed as gigantic sills along the coast.  One such sill is Tillamook Head, of which Ecola State Park is a part –and it’s eroding into the sea stacks you can see in the distance.J.130120-11lrs


Photo K.  Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach, OR.  Go figure, one of our iconic state landmarks is an undersea volcano?  You can actually walk out to this thing at low tide and see lots of pillow basalt and dikes intruding the Astoria Formation.  The smaller sea stacks are part of the same complex.K.130121-12


Photo L. Seal Rock, Oregon.  Seal Rock is the southernmost exposure of CRBG on the coast –and it too, is intrusive.  It’s a big dike that trends NNW for about a quarter mile out to sea.  And along its edges, there are smaller dikes that you can see intruding the Astoria Formation, such as in the smaller photo.  The arrow points to where you can see the small intrusion, at low to medium tides.

L. Seal Rock

Some Terms:
dike: a tabular-shaped intrusion that cuts across layering in the surrounding rock.  Imagine magma flowing along a crack and eventually cooling down and crystallizing.  That would form a dike.  A feeder dike is a dike that fed lava flows at the surface.

normal fault: a type of fault along which younger rocks from above slide down against older rocks below.  They typically form when the crust is being extended.

porphyry: an igneous rock with larger, easily visible crystals floating around in a matrix of much smaller ones.

sill: an intrusion that runs parallel to layering in the surrounding rock.


Some references:

Reidel, S.P., Camp, V.E., Tolan, T.L., Martin, B.S. 2013. The Columbia River flood basalt province: stratigraphy, areal extent, volume, and physical volcanology. In The Columbia River Basalt Province, Geological Society of America Special Paper 497, eds. S.P. Reidel, V.E. Camp, M.E. Ross, J.A. Wolff, B.S. Martin, T.L. Tolan, and R.E. Wells, p. 1-44.

Wells, R.E., Niem, A.R., Evarts, R.C., and Hagstrum, J.T. 2009. The Columbia River Basalt Group—From the gorge to the sea. In Volcanoes to Vineyards: Geologic Field Trips through the Dynamic Landscape of the Pacific Northwest, Geological Society of America Field Guide 15, eds. J.E. O’Connor, R.J. Dorsey, and I.P. Madin, p. 737-774.

Some links:

Roadside Geology of Oregon
Geology pictures for free download
Geologic map of Oregon

Geologic history of the western United States in a cliff face in Death Valley National Park

Of the many geologic events that shaped the western United States since the beginning of the Paleozoic Era, five really stand out.  In approximate chronological order, these events include the accumulation of tens of thousands of feet of sedimentary rock on a passive margin, periods of compressional mountain building that folded and faulted those rocks during much of the Mesozoic–likely driven by the accretion of terranes, intrusion of subduction-related granitic rock (such as the Sierra Nevada) during the Jurassic and Cretaceous, volcanic activity during the late Cenozoic, and mountain-building by crustal extension during the late Cenozoic and continuing today.  This photo on the western edge of Panamint Valley in Death Valley National Park of California, captures all five.

View of canyon wall on west side of Panamint Valley in SE California --part of Death Valley National Park.  See photo below for interpretation.

View of canyon wall on west side of Panamint Valley in SE California –part of Death Valley National Park. See photo below for interpretation.

The photograph below shows an interpretation.  Paleozoic rock is folded because of the Late Paleozoic-early Mesozoic compressional mountain-building; it’s intruded by Jurassic age granitic rock, an early phase of Sierran magmatism that took place just to the west; the granitic rock is overlain by Late Cenozoic basalt flows, and everything is cut by a normal (extensional) fault.  And there is also a dike that cuts the Paleozoic rock –probably a feeder for the basalt flows.

Interpretation of top photo.

Interpretation of top photo.

So this is all nerdy geology cross-cutting relations talk –but here’s the point: in this one place, you can see evidence for 100s of millions of years of Earth History.  Earth is old old old!  THAT’S why I love geology!

And for those of you who crave geologic contacts?  This photo has all three: depositional, between the basalt and underlying rock; intrusive, between the Mesozoic granite and the folded Paleozoic rock; fault, the steeply dipping black line between the basalt and the Paleozoic rock.  Another reason why I love geology!

click here to see photos and explanations of geologic contacts.
or click here for a slideshow of Death Valley geology.

Geologic Time in a mountainside –the Wallowa Mountains from Joseph, Oregon

Joseph, Oregon is a wonderful place for geology.  The town sits right at the foot of the Wallowa Mountains in the northeastern corner of Oregon.  The mountains rise some 4-5000′ abruptly from the valley floor along a recently active normal fault.

The Wallowa Mountains rise along a fault zone just south of the town of Joseph.

The Wallowa Mountains rise along a fault zone just south of the town of Joseph.

In the mountains, you can see some bedrock relations that speak to great lengths of geologic time.  An erosional remnant of the Columbia River Basalt Group caps Sawtooth Peak in the photos below; it sits directly on granite of the Wallowa Batholith –and just a little bit south, on the next peak, the granite intrudes Martin Bridge Limestone!  So, from oldest to youngest, the rock units are the Martin Bridge Limestone, the Wallowa granite, the Columbia River Basalt.

Sawtooth Peak (right) capped by Columbia River Basalt.  Beneath it is granite of the Wallow Batholith --and off to the left, are the bedded rocks of the Martin Bridge Limestone.

Sawtooth Peak (right) capped by Columbia River Basalt. Beneath it is granite of the Wallowa Batholith –and off to the left, are the bedded rocks of the Martin Bridge Limestone.  See below for labels.

Rock units and contacts described in the text

Rock units and contacts described in the text

Never mind that we know the Martin Bridge Limestone is Triassic –so more than 200 million years old –and that the Wallowa Batholith formed at different times between 140 to about 120 million years ago –and that the basalt is about 16 million years old.  You can throw out radiometric dating, but even so, you’re looking at a great span of geologic time.  The limestone first had to be deposited, layer after layer –and then buried –and then intruded at a depth of 5-8 km by the granite –which THEN had to get uplifted to Earth’s surface so the basalt could flow over it.  After THAT, it all had to get uplifted to its present elevation along the normal fault just south of town and much of the basalt had to erode away.

Honestly, we have influential people in this country who spout off things like the Earth is only 6000 years old.  They also deny the overwhelming evidence for climate change.  I guess I should stop writing now before I get too worked up!

More photos of the Wallowas at Geologic Photography.

Today’s hazards, yesterday’s hazards: Earthquake damage, ongoing rock fall, and basalt flow

The M 6.3 February, 2011 Earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand caused more than considerable damage; 185 people lost their lives and estimates of damage now exceed $40 billion.  When I visited in January, 2014, there was still clear evidence of the destruction, such as this broken house teetering on the edge of a cliff face.  The cliff had apparently given way during the earthquake and taken the entire back yard with it.  Now, rock fall provides an ongoing hazard –hence the stacked shipping containers to keep it off the road.

And then there’s the lava flow –Miocene in age, filling an ancient river channel, as plain as day.  Some 10 or 11 million years ago, this lava flow probably burned everything in its path.


photo downloaded from (type “New Zealand” into the search)

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