Geology and Geologic Time through Photographs

Archive for the tag “California”


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!


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.


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.


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.


“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.





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.

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.

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!

Cambrian rock

–the last posting, (March 21) had a photo of granite of the Cretaceous Sierra Nevada Batholith intruding Cambrian sedimentary (now metamorphosed) rocks.  These photos show more Cambrian rock.  The Cambrian Period (542-488 million years ago) is the bottom of the Phanerozoic Eon –and one reason Cambrian rocks are significant, is that they are the oldest rocks to contain shelly fossils.  Older rocks, called “Precambrian” may contain fossil impressions or fossilized algae, but don’t contain any shells.

At the risk of being too repetitive (see post March 13) the upper photo shows Cambrian limestone in the Death Valley region –there are thousands of feet of Cambrian Limestone in the Death Valley region.   The lower photo shows Cambrian sandstone, shale, and limestone overlying tilted Precambrian sedimentary rock in the Grand Canyon.

My point is that the Cambrian section is traceable over great distances.  That’s important, because the base of the Cambrian provides a common datum over much of the western US –certainly from the Sierra Nevada to Death Valley to the Grand Canyon –but in later posts, you can see that it’s also in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana… and so on!

Cambrian limestone in the Nopah Range, SE Californi

Thousands of feet of marine limestone make up many of the mountain ranges in the Death Valley area of SE California. Click here to see a geologic map of Death Valley National Park...

The photo above shows the Cambrian Bonanza King Formation (gray) on top the Cambrian Carrara Fm (orange).

And the photo below shows the near-horizontal Cambrian and younger rocks of the Grand Canyon over tilted Precambrian sedimentary rock.  It’s really thin here… the Cambrian only goes up through the arrow.

Cretaceous batholiths and roof pendants

The photos from the last posting were from the Sierra Nevada Batholith –called a “batholith” because it consists of many many smaller intrusive bodies that collectively define a much larger intrusive complex that doesn’t even have a well-defined root.  As it turns out, the Sierra Nevada are one of several really large batholiths that intruded the crust of the Pacific Margin during the Cretaceous Period, about 80-100 million years ago.

Granitic Batholiths of Cretaceous age in western North America.

And along the east side of the Sierra Nevada, we can see the original rock into which the granite of the Sierra Nevada intruded.  This original rock consists of older sedimentary and volcanic rock–that dates from the Cambrian Period through the Jurassic– much of which was metamorphosed by the heat from the intruding granite.  The photo below shows the Cretaceous granite below (light colored rock) and the dark-colored sedimentary (now metamorphic) rock above.  These older rocks that are intruded by the granite are called “roof pendants” because they show the roof of the batholith.

Cretaceous granite intruding Cambrian metasedimentary rock, Sierra Nevada Range.

And as far as geologic time goes, this photo shows us that the granite, discussed in previous posts, is younger than the sedimentary rock that overlies it.

And click here to see a photo of glaciated granite in Yosemite National Park.



That’s actually the moon at the end of the crack in this rock…

granite and moon, Sierra Nevada, California.

A typical exposure of granite --coarse grained with an interlocking, random assortment of crystals. Click here to search for geology pictures by keyword.

And the rock is a pretty typical example of granodiorite… which is a lot like granite, except it has a little less silica.  See yesterday’s post about igneous rocks if you’re interested.

It turns out that most of the Sierra Nevada Range in California, including Mt. Whitney (the conterminous US’s highest peak) is made out of granodiorite.  And if you consider that most of the magma cooled and crystallized at a depth of 10km, and now resides about 4km ABOVE sea level, we’re looking at millions of years to accomplish this uplift.

Here’s Mt. Whitney at sunrise… It’s the peak just left-of center.  From this view, you can see that the rock of this part of the Sierra Nevada Range is all pretty much the same: granodiorite.

Mt. Whitney and Sierra Nevada, California at sunrise. Mt. Whitney's elevation is 14, 505' above sea level, the highest spot in the conterminous US. The rock in this photograph is almost entirely granodiorite.

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