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Five Awesome Minerals –for rocks and landscapes

All told, we humans have discovered more than 5000 mineral types. I challenged myself to list the five most important minerals when it comes to the formation of rocks and their subsequent weathering and erosion into landscape.

Rock, which makes up our planet, consists of different minerals. This granite is made of, Q=quartz, O=orthoclase feldspar, P=plagioclase feldspar, B=biotite mica (IP18-1012ce)

It’s an impossible task –and subjective, of course –and I fudged a bit by grouping some minerals together. But here they are: the silicate minerals quartz, mica, feldspar, and mafic minerals, and the carbonate mineral, calcite. I invite you to take me to task in the comments section. Even so, these five minerals are easy to identify and are critical to any discussion about rocks –which makes them important to understanding weathering and erosion. And, I’m adding them to my already packed curriculum for my introductory class on surface processes next term, so five seems to be a good upper limit on the numbers.

Oh! Click on any image to see it enlarged on a separate page.

The five awesomest minerals

Weathering, by the way, is the in-place physical and/or chemical breakdown of rock; erosion is its removal –so they go hand-in-hand. A lot goes into how susceptible a rock is to these processes—not just the mineral content—and when it comes to chemical breakdown, the main factors always involve water. If a rock is accessible to water, it will break down more quickly; if it’s not accessible to water, it will be more resistant.

Fractures in granite collect water and host vegetation, focusing weathering along the fracture. Acadia National Park, Maine. (100608-59)

Because some rocks will weather and erode more quickly than others, landscapes form with cliffs and valleys and steep slopes, gentle slopes –all sorts of variation you can imagine—depending in part on the bedrock. We call the phenomenon “differential erosion”. You can find more detail on the processes in one of my earlier posts, called “Shaping of Landscape“.

Differential weathering and erosion: Mexican Hat, Utah (9OtR-049)

Ok… the minerals:

Quartz  –most people have come to know quartz because of its pretty crystals –especially the purple variety called amethyst—but they might not realize that it’s a hugely important component of many igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rocks, and it forms the cement of many sedimentary rocks.  When it comes to weathering, quartz is practically inert chemically, so a strongly quartz-cemented sandstone will be more resistant to weathering and erosion than most other sedimentary rocks. The sandstone will stand out in relief, likely as cliffs or even overhangs. By contrast, weakly cemented, often finer-grained rocks tend to form slopes or even valleys.

Differential erosion along the Front Range of Colorado: resistant, inclined sandstone beds form ridges while intervening shale forms a valley. (131025-52)

If you look closely at a sandstone like the one below, chance are you’ll see mostly quartz grains. Quartz grains might break up into little pieces as they’re being transported by rivers, for example, but they won’t turn into clay like most other minerals. The result? Sediment gets increasingly rich in quartz the farther it’s transported from its source –and so if it travels a great distance, quartz is just about the only thing left!

Close-up views of quartz sandstone and cement. Photo on right is enlarged approx 3x. (click on it to see it even larger) Nearly all those little sand-sized particles are quartz! (201120-10i)

Micas are those shiny sheet-like minerals we see catching the light in a whole host of rocks. The best known micas are muscovite (white mica) and biotite (black mica). In metamorphism, they grow larger with increases in temperature, providing a handy way to distinguish between slate, phyllite, and schist — a nice thing to know in a geology class. The diagram below illustrates the process.

With increasing temperature, the clay within shale will recrystallize to microscopic mica to make slate a hard, metamorphic rock with a dull luster. Even hotter and the micas grow larger to produce phyllite, which has a reflective sheen, and then become easily visible in schist. Hotter still and coarse minerals segregate into layers to make gneiss. (201119-12e)

When it comes to weathering and erosion, those little mica sheets allow infiltration of water. Metamorphic rocks overall are pretty resistant because of their crystallinity –but slates or schist, for example, degrade much more quickly than gneisses because of their prevalence of mica minerals, which together create a fine-scale layering in the rock. Gneisses are coarse-grained, and their layering tends to be thicker and less permeable.

Collectively, feldspars are the most common minerals of the Earth’s crust –and there are numerous varieties, the most common being orthoclase and plagioclase, which often occur together. For the purposes of landscapes, I grouped them together as one: they’re all kind of chunky looking and are generally light-colored. Feldspars are the main components of igneous rocks, making up 60-70% (or even more) of most granitic rocks, which tend to form distinctive landscapes marked by cliffs and large rounded boulders.

Spheroidal weathering in Cretaceous granitic rock, SE California. Mt. Whitney and the Sierra Nevada in background. (180314-91)

The “mafic minerals” are named so because they’re generally rich in iron and magnesium and poor in silica when compared to a lot of other common minerals –and they’re typically dark green to black in color, so “mafic rocks” like basaltic lavas also tend to be darker colored. The main mafic minerals are olivine, pyroxene, and amphibole. Olivine, as it turns out, is our planet’s most common mineral! It’s the main stuff of the mantle, which depending on where you are, lies some 10-40km below the surface.

Hikers on basalt flow on Mauna Loa Volcano in Hawaii; cinder cone (also basalt, but weathered red from oxidized iron) in background. Inset shows large olivine crystals in basalt surrounded by mostly pyroxene and calcium-rich plagioclase feldspar. (170917s-14) and 200517-4) Please click the link for a post on this amazing volcano!

The physical properties of these mafic minerals explain all sorts of things like why oceanic plates subduct beneath continental ones (being made of mafic minerals, they’re denser so they sink) to the shapes of volcanoes (mafic lavas, being less viscous than silicic ones, tend to form broad, low-relief shield volcanoes). For surface weathering and erosion, the mafic minerals tend to break down into clay more quickly than most other silicate minerals –which means that all else being equal, rocks with more mafic minerals will weather and erode faster than rocks with the other silicate minerals described here.

Mauna Kea Shield Volcano, Hawaii (left), made from basalt, which is more fluid (less viscous) than more silicic lavas like andesite, which make steeper cones such as Mt. Shasta in California. (170918s-83 and 140617-114)

Finally, calcite, the sole non-silicate on this list, is hugely important because it’s what makes up the very common sedimentary rock limestone. Limestones occupy a separate class of sedimentary rock than sandstones: they’re “biogenic”, having formed through the precipitation of calcite through biological processes, as opposed to “clastic”, which are just broken particles. As a result, they’re important to understanding sedimentary rocks, and because of the biology connection, Earth history and evolution. For landscapes, limestones are also really important because the calcite will dissolve in slightly acidic water to form caves and sinkholes–there’s a whole class of landscape called “Karst”, which results from the dissolution of limestone.

The “fizz test”: calcite crystal (left) and limestone (right) both react with a weak solution of hydrochloric acid to give off carbon dioxide gas –because they’re both made of the same material (201122-11 and 201111-17)

And re-precipitation of calcite within caves forms the beautiful speleothems we so love –stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone… the list goes on. That rock, called travertine, occupies a third class of sedimentary rock called “chemical sedimentary rocks”.

Stalagmite, Carlsbad Caverns NP, New Mexico. (100131-63)

Phew! My apologies to those mineralogy people who might read this and think, “but she missed that important idea! And that one too! And what about that mineral?” Maybe that’s the point though –this is just a start. There is so much these five minerals can teach us –and there are so many other wonderful minerals I didn’t even mention. So here’s to reading more info that somebody might’ve put into the comments section. Here also to all the geology majors out there who take upper level geology courses that delve into all the amazing detail and make connections that I wasn’t able to in this little space!

Olivine. I already know that I didn’t do olivine justice. (201119-20)

And if you want to download any of these photos for your own –just type in the photo id into the search function of my geology photo website.

Also, I posted a primer on rock types –if you’re interested, please have a look –and thanks for reading!

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.

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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.) Read more…

Where rocks touch: geologic contacts

Geologic contacts are the surfaces where two different rocks touch each other –where they make contact. And there are only three types: depositional, intrusive, or fault. Contacts are one of the basic concerns in field geology and in creating geologic maps –and geologic maps are critical to comprehending the geology of a given area. For those of you out there who already know this stuff, I’ll do my best to spice it up with some nice photos. For those of you who don’t? This post is for you!

Depositional contacts are those where a sedimentary or volcanic rock was deposited on an older rock (of any type). Intrusive contacts are those where igneous rocks intrude older rock (of any type). Fault contacts are… faults! –surfaces where two rocks of any type have moved into their current positions next to each other along a fault.

In a cross-sectional sketch they may look like this:x-sxnlr

And here are some photos. Click on the image to see it at full size.Depositional contact and windows,  Jurassic Entrada Fm (red) ove

So how do you tell them apart in the field? If the actual contact surface isn’t exposed –which is usually the case– you have to use some indirect observations. Here are some general rules that can help. Of course, each “rule” has exceptions, described later. Read more…

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Smith Rock State Park –great geology at the edge of Oregon’s largest caldera

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Smith Rock, the Crooked River, and modern Cascade volcanoes from Misery Ridge.

The view from outside the small visitor center at Smith Rock State Park offers a landscape of contrasts. The parking lot, and nearby camping and picnic areas, are flat, underlain by the edge of a basaltic lava flow that drops off in a series of steps to a narrow canyon, some 120 feet (37 m) below. The Crooked River, which rises about 100 miles (162 km) away in the High Lava Plains, fills much of the canyon bottom. Across the canyon, tan cliffs and spires of tuff, another volcanic rock, soar overhead. Smith Rock itself forms a peninsula of this rock, enclosed by a hairpin bend of the Crooked River. The tuff erupted 29.5 million years ago in the largest volcanic eruption to occur entirely within Oregon. Read more…

Shaping of Landscape: A primer on weathering and erosion

Most of us love landscapes –and many of us find ourselves wondering how they came to look the way they do. In most cases, landscapes take their shape through the combined processes of weathering and erosion. While weathering and erosion constitute entire fields of study unto themselves, this primer outlines some of the basics—which pretty much underlie all the further details of how natural processes shape landscapes.

Incised meanders on the Green River, Utah

Aerial view of incised meanders of Green River, Utah.

Two definitions: weathering describes the in-place breakdown of rock material whereas erosion is the removal of that material. Basically, weathering turns solid rock into crud while erosion allows that crud to move away.

Weathering
Weathering processes fall into two categories: physical and chemical.  Physical weathering consists of the actual breakage of rock; any process that promotes breakage, be it enlargement of cracks, splitting, spalling, or fracturing, is a type of physical weathering.  Common examples include enlargement of cracks through freezing and thawing, enlargement of cracks during root growth, and splitting or spalling of rock from thermal expansion during fires.

Spalling of volcanic rock

Spalling of volcanic rock–likely from thermal expansion during a fire.

Read more…

Iceland –where you can walk a mid-Atlantic rift –and some other geology photos

While Iceland hosts an amazing variety of awesome landscapes, what stands out to me most are its incredible exposures of the Mid-Atlantic ridge. To the north and south, the ridge lies beneath some 2500m of water, forming a rift that separates the North American plate from the Eurasian plate. The rift spreads apart at a rate of some 2.5 cm/year, forming new oceanic lithosphere in the process. But in Iceland, you can actually walk around in it!

Iceland2geomapplates

Geologic map of Iceland as compiled from references listed below.

Read more…

Hug Point State Park, Oregon, USA –sea cliffs expose a Miocene delta invaded by lava flows

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Alcove and tidepool at Hug Point

Imagine, some 15 million years ago, basaltic lava flows pouring down a river valley to the coast –and then somehow invading downwards into the sandy sediments of its delta. Today, you can see evidence for these events in the sea cliffs near Hug Point in Oregon. There, numerous basalt dikes and sills invade awesome sandstone exposures of the Astoria Formation, some of which exhibit highly contorted bedding, likely caused by the invading lava. It’s also really beautiful, with numerous alcoves and small sea caves to explore. And at low to medium-low tides, you can walk miles along the sandy beach!

(Click on any of the images to see them at a larger size)

Read more…

Devil’s Punchbowl –Awesome geology on a beautiful Oregon beach

You could teach a geology course at Devil’s Punchbowl, a state park just north of Newport, Oregon. Along this half-mile stretch of beach and rocky tidepools, you see tilted sedimentary rocks, normal faults, an angular unconformity beneath an uplifted marine terrace, invasive lava flows, and of course amazing erosional features typical of Oregon’s spectacular coastline. And every one of these features tells a story. You can click on any of the images below to see them at a larger size.

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View southward from Cape Foulweather to the Devil’s Punchbowl.

 

180629-58ceThe rocks. They’re mostly shallow marine sandstones of the Astoria Formation, deposited in the early part of the Miocene, between about 16.5 to 22 million years ago. The rocks are tilted so you can walk horizontally into younger ones, which tend to be finer grained and more thinly bedded than the rocks below. This change in grain size suggests a gradual deepening of the water level through time. In many places, you can find small deposits of broken clam shells, likely stirred up and scattered during storms –and on the southern edge of the first headland north of the Punchbowl, you can find some spectacular soft-sediment deformation, probably brought on by submarine slumping. Later rock alteration from circulating hot groundwater caused iron sulfide minerals to crystallize within some of the sandstone. Read more…

Cove Palisades, Oregon: a tidy short story in the vastness of time

If I were a water skier, I’d go to Lake Billy Chinook at Cove Palisades where I could ski and see amazing geology at the same time. On the other hand, I’d probably keep crashing because the geology is so dramatic! Maybe a canoe would be better.

Lake Billy Chinook, Oregon

View across the Crooked River Arm of Lake Billy Chinook to some of the 1.2 million year old canyon-filling basalt (right) and Deschutes Fm (left). The cliff on the far left of the photo is also part of the 1.2 million year basalt.

The lake itself fills canyons of the Crooked, Deschutes and Metolius Rivers. It backs up behind Round Butte Dam, which blocks the river channel just down from where the rivers merge. The rocks here tell a story of earlier river canyons that occupied the same places as today’s Crooked and Deschutes Rivers. These older canyons were filled by basaltic lava flows that now line some of the walls of today’s canyons.

CovePalisades2From the geologic map, modified from Bishop and Smith, 1990, you can see how the brown-colored canyon-filling basalt, (called the “Intracanyon Basalt”) forms narrow outcrops within today’s Crooked and Deschutes canyon areas. It erupted about 1.2 million years ago and flowed from a vent about 60 miles to the south. You can also see that most of the bedrock (in shades of green) consists of the Deschutes Formation, and that there are a lot of landslides along the canyon sides.

The cross-section at the bottom of the map shows the view along a west-to-east line. Multiple flows of the intracanyon basalt filled the canyon 1.2 million years ago –and since then the river has re-established its channel pretty much in the old canyon. While the map and cross-section views suggest the flows moved down narrow valleys or canyons, you can actually see the canyon edges, several of which are visible right from the road.

Read more…

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