Geology and Geologic Time through Photographs

Archive for the tag “desert”

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!

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.

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.

Great Unconformity –Grand Canyon, Arizona

So just like intrusive igneous rocks, metamorphic rocks require great lengths of time to accomplish the uplift and erosion in order to be exposed at Earth’s surface.

So what do we make of this photograph?  It shows a sequence of sandstone, shale, and limestone sitting on top metamorphic rock (called the “Vishnu Schist”) in the Grand Canyon.  The sandstone was deposited right on top the schist.

Great unconformity, Grand Canyon, Arizona

Sequence of Cambrian sandstone (the ledge across the middle of the photo), shale (the overlying slopes) and limestone (the upper cliffs) deposited on top the Vishnu Schist in the Grand Canyon.


Since sedimentary rocks, like sandstone, shale, or limestone, are deposited at Earth’s surface –and metamorphic rock forms beneath the surface, this photo shows that BEFORE the sedimentary rocks were deposited, the metamorphic rock (schist) had to have been uplifted and exposed.  So all the time required to bring the schist to the surface had to take place before the sandstone was even deposited.

The surface of contact between the sandstone and the schist is called an unconformity because it is here that we see evidence for a great deal of missing rock record.  The sandstone must be much younger than the schist –for the very reason that the schist first had to get uplifted and exposed at the surface before the sandstone was deposited on top of it.  So… because the sandstone is so much younger, but it was deposited right on top the schist, there must be a gap in the rock record between them … an unconformity.

And here is where we see evidence for even LONGER periods of time.  Overlying the sandstone?  Thousands and thousands of feet of more sedimentary rock.  And much of that sedimentary rock was marine… formed at sea level.  It is now over a mile above sea level.

And the schist itself?  The people who’ve studied it have determined that much of it was originally volcanic –which means that it originally formed at the Earth’s surface.  So… over geologic time, it must have been buried to the depths needed to turn it into a metamorphic rock BEFORE it was uplifted and exposed.

So… how old is Earth?  Some say 6 or 10,000 years… I think we’re looking at 10s of millions in this photo.  And if we consider the numerical ages for these rocks, 1.7 billion is the age of metamorphism of the schist –its original volcanic rock must have been older!

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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