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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.

Chemical weathering alters the composition of the rock and is critical for soil development.  The most prevalent processes are oxidation of iron-rich minerals, dissolution of material, most notably of the calcium carbonate that makes up limestone or the cement of many sandstones, and hydrolysis, which turns feldspars and micas to clay.  As chemical processes all require water to proceed, they are most active in wet, warm climates, and least active in dry cold ones.

Strongly chemically weathered granitic rock above less weathered granitic rock.

Grus, disintegrated granitic rock, Montana

Disintegration of granitic rock through hydrolysis of feldspars

 

Physical and chemical weathering processes help each other degrade rocks. By breaking rock into smaller pieces, physical weathering processes greatly increase the surface area over which chemical processes can attack.  At the same time, chemical processes greatly weaken a rock’s strength and make it more susceptible to breakage.  Chemical weathering of individual mineral grains also increases their volume, which itself leads to fracture.

Groundwater staining along fractures in granite, Sierra Nevada,

Chemical weathering (oxidation and hydrolysis) concentrated along fractures in granitic rock.

 

Erosion
In contrast to breaking things down in-place, erosion removes material, typically through gravity, water, or wind.  The single most important influence is gravity, which drives processes such as rock falls, avalanches, and debris flows.  Most erosion, however, is a product of gravity and water acting together: water facilitates gravity-driven processes like debris flows, and gravity ultimately lies behind the power of water.   Wind can also be important, but is a relatively minor contributor overall because it can transport only the finer-grained particles.

Recent rock avalanche

Rock avalanche deposit, Utah

 

Weathering and Erosion together
Weathering and erosion work hand-in-hand in their creation of landscapes. Weathering processes break exposed bedrock into smaller and weaker fragments, which allows erosion to proceed.  By removing that material, erosion then exposes new bedrock to weathering processes.

Landscape and Bedrock

Besides telling us about Earth history, the bedrock of a particular place helps determine how it looks.  The bedrock provides the initial block of clay, so to speak, that is carved by weathering and erosion to create the landforms at the surface.  As a result, the shape of the landscape depends on the actual type of rock and its structure– that is, its orientation, relationship to other rock types, and presence or absence of fracture or fault zones.  For example, some rock types are easily weathered and removed by erosion while others are extremely resistant, and these may show through as topographic lows and highs respectively. 

Differential erosion: a hogback, Utah

Resistant sandstone forms a “hogback ridge” whereas less resistant shale and mudstone form gullies, Utah.

While a number of factors affect a rock’s resistance to weathering and erosion, the single most important one is its ability to repel water.  As a result, prevalence of bedding in sedimentary rock or foliation in metamorphic rock, both of which allow water penetration, decrease the resistance.  By the same reasoning, increased grain size tends to increase resistance because coarser grains offer less surface area for a given volume.  Similarly, stronger cementation in sedimentary rocks increases resistance, as does the crystalline nature of metamorphic rocks.  Carbonate rocks, such as limestone and dolomite, provide interesting exceptions to these rules.  In arid environments, they are resistant, but in wetter climates where they can dissolve, they are not resistant.

Differential erosion of sandstone vs shale, Utah.

Sandstone beds, being coarser grained and thicker bedded than the red-colored shale and siltstone, stand out in relief because they are more resistant to erosion. Utah.

As the single most important factor in weathering and erosion is water, it stands to reason that the presence of fractures or fault zones in rock, which tend to localize water flow, greatly influences the landscape. Additionally, movement along fault zones tends to crush some of the adjacent rock, which makes them even easier to erode.  As a result, fractures and faults frequently form canyons or valleys.  For example, at Arches and Canyonlands national park in Utah, vertical fractures erode into slot canyons to leave the intervening, non-fractured rock standing upright as narrow ridges called fins.  Some of these fins erode in from their sides to form arches.  At Pt. Reyes National Seashore in California, Tomales Bay protrudes inland as a long narrow bay eroded along the San Andreas fault. Click here to see a post about the San Andreas fault!

Vertical joints in sandstone, SE Utah.

Vertical fractures in sandstone eroding into fins, Arches National Park, Utah.

The vertical changes in a sequence of sedimentary rocks show the most predictable, yet dramatic, impacts on landscape, especially in arid landscapes. In flat-lying rocks, such as in many parts of the Colorado Plateau, the resistant rock units form cliffs whereas more easily erodable units form slopes.  The easily eroded slopes are typically littered with large blocks from the cliffs above. These blocks fall when erosion of the slopes undercuts the cliffs and gravity takes over.

Talus cones and Cedar Mesa, Utah

Edge of Cedar Mesa, Utah. The cliffs consist of resistant sandstone whereas the slopes are made of less resistant shale and siltstone.

Below is another example of how the resistant cliffs tend to erode by rock fall.

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Sandstone blocks, fallen from the cliffs above, onto slopes of less resistant shale and siltstone, Utah.

 

In places where the rocks are tilted, the more resistant rocks form ridges whereas the less resistant ones form valleys.  In places where the rock is folded, these ridges and valleys curve in the same way as the rocks.   Importantly, bedding takes on an important role in erosion of tilted rocks, as it encourages sliding of rock in the direction of tilt.  As a result, the ridges are typically asymmetric: they slope parallel to bedding on one side to create a “dip slope”, and form ledges and cliffs on the opposite side.

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Tilted resistant sandstone forms asymmetric ridge with dip-slope (on the left). Colorado.

The photo below shows numerous ridges held up by resistant sedimentary rock with intervening “strike” valleys eroded into less-resistant rock. The rocks dip steeply to the right (east).

Hogback Ridges near Mora, New Mexico

Aerial view of resistant hogback ridges and strike valleys near Mora, New Mexico.

 

Lava flows and metamorphic rocks exhibit layering that can influence topography in a similar way, although in these rocks, the extent of the layering tends to be more local and less predictable.  The widespread lava flows of late-Cenozoic age in the western US have probably the biggest effect on the landscape.  Many of these flows are relatively undeformed and so remain approximately flat-lying.  Similar to sedimentary sequences, they form large plateaus that in places are incised by deep canyons.  Examples of these flows include the basalt flows of the Snake River Plain in Idaho and the basalt flows of the Columbia Plateau in Oregon and Washington.

Lava Flows of Columbia River Basalt Group, Washington

Flat-lying Lava Flows of Columbia River Basalt Group, Washington

So landscapes are shaped by erosion, but the erosion depends on the weathering processes at hand and the rock type and structure. The weathering processes allow erosion to proceed and the rock type and structure guide both the weathering and erosion. The lead-off photo in this post shows canyons in the meandering Green River. It looks that way because the rocks are flat-lying. The stair-stepped topography down to the river, of cliffs and slopes, simply results from alternating resistant and less-resistant rock types. And the river? It’s entrenched in the canyons, probably because it continued to downcut as the region uplifted.

Here’s another example –another aerial from the Colorado Plateau –you can see how flat-lying rocks create the stair-stepped topography down to the river –and the uppermost resistant rock forms a nearly flat upland.

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Stair-stepped topography and entrenched meanders, northern Arizona.

Yay!

For more images of weathering and erosion, all freely downloadable, please check out my gallery of weathering and erosion photos –or go to the keyword search on my website and type in “weathering” or “erosion” –or both!

 

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!

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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…

Rocks! –a brief illustrated primer

click on any image to see a larger version

Seems like most people I know like rocks. They bring home unusual rocks from vacations; they admire beautiful facing stones on buildings; they frequently ask “What is this rock”? Considering that the type of rock you’re looking at reflects the processes that caused it to form, some basic rock identification skills can go a long way to understanding our planet!

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Rock (left, igneous-granite) and minerals (right, quartz and kyanite). Notice that the granite is made of a variety of minerals.

Of course there are thousands of different rock types —But! they ALL fit into one of three categories: igneous, sedimentary, or metamorphic. Here’s a brief, illustrated summary of each.

Igneous rocks are those that form by cooling and crystallization from a molten state. Consequently, they consist of crystals of various minerals that form an interlocking mosaic like the rock in the photo to the right. Igneous rocks are further classified as “intrusive” or “extrusive”, depending if they form beneath Earth’s surface (intrusive) or on Earth’s surface (extrusive). Extrusive rocks are more commonly called volcanic rocks. Generally speaking, intrusive rocks are coarsely crystalline whereas volcanic ones are finely crystalline. Check out this gallery of igneous rock photos.

Sedimentary rocks are made of particles (“sediment”) of pre-existing rock that are deposited as layers on Earth’s surface and then become cemented together. Individual layers of sedimentary rock are called “beds”. Bedding is best observed from a distance; most individual sedimentary rocks come from within a bed and so may appear homogeneous. Check out this gallery of sedimentary rock photos.

Metamorphic rocks are pre-existing rocks that change (“metamorphose”) because they are subject to high temperatures and/or pressures. This change involves the growth of new crystals in the rock. Because this growth typically occurs under conditions of high pressure as well as temperature, the new minerals tend to grow in a preferred orientation, leading to a fine-scale layering in the rock. This layering is called foliation. Unlike bedding in sedimentary rock, foliation tends to be irregular and marked by differently colored zones of different minerals. Check out this gallery of metamorphic rock photos.

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Sedimentary (sandstone, L), Igneous (granite, Ctr), and Metamorphic (gneiss, R) specimens

Key

simplified key to recognizing main rock types

Telling Igneous, Sedimentary, and Metamorphic rocks apart is usually pretty easy. First, decide if the rock consists of crystals or rounded grains. If it consists of crystals, then it is igneous or metamorphic; if it consists of grains, then it is sedimentary. If the crystals are arranged into layers or bands, the rock is metamorphic; if they are randomly arranged, then it is igneous. Igneous rocks with large crystals generally indicate slow cooling within the earth (intrusive). Conversely, igneous rocks with small crystals generally indicate rapid cooling on Earth’s surface (volcanic).

Igneous Rock –more details

Intrusive and volcanic rocks are further classified based on their chemistry and texture according to the chart below. This is one place where mineral identification becomes very important because minerals reflect the rock’s chemistry. Importantly, rocks with high silica content, such as rhyolite and granite, typically have fairly low iron contents, and so tend to have minerals that are light in color, such as K-feldspar, sodium-rich plagioclase, and quartz. Conversely, rocks with low silica content, such as basalt and gabbro, typically have high iron contents, and so have minerals that tend to be dark in color.

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Principal igneous rock types. Their classification depends on texture and composition. Fine-grained rocks are extrusive (upper row), whereas coarse-grained rocks are intrusive (lower row). Silica content then determines the specific rock name: gabbro and basalt <50-57%, SiO2; diorite and andesite, 57-67%; granite and rhyolite, 67+%.   Notice that rocks tend to be darker, denser, and more iron rich towards the lower silica end of the spectrum.

More on Volcanic Rock
Being igneous, volcanic rocks are made of crystals –but they’re so fine grained, you often can’t see that without a microscope. Thankfully, many volcanic rocks contain phenocrysts, larger crystals surrounded by the finer grained matrix. If you look closely at the photos of basalt and andesite above, you can see phenocrysts of plagioclase feldspar as the small white things.

Below are more photos, showing a more enlarged view of a rock with phenocrysts. Note how fine grained the surrounding matrix is –you can’t really see anything at all. If you look at the microscopic view though you can see that the whole rock is crystalline, even the super-fine matrix. The point here is that, unless the rock contains glass (see next section), the whole rock is crystalline!

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Porphyritic volcanic rock in hand sample (left) and microscopically (right). Note how microscopic view

Volcanic: Glass
One of the more ubiquitous volcanic products, volcanic glass is just that –glass–so it lacks a crystal structure. Glass can form when the lava is so dry as to inhibit crystal growth, as in obsidian, or when lava cools so quickly as to prevent crystal growth, such as with volcanic ash and pumice.

The photos below show pumice, which is frothy volcanic glass. It gets that texture because it forms during violent eruptions –explosively expanding gases in the lava shatter the fast-cooling material so that the rock consists of air bubbles (called vesicles) separated by glassy sidewalls.

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Pumice: frothy volcanic glass from instantaneous cooling. Left-hand image shows close-up view of glass threads. Paper clip for scale.

Volcanic: Pyroclastic Material and Rocks
Pyroclastic materials (also called “tephra”) form during explosive eruptions and so consist of rock fragments and glass ejected violently from the volcano. We classify it according to its size: large fragments are called blocks or bombs; small particles, between about 2mm – 64mm, are called “lapilli”; tiny particles, smaller than 2mm, are called “ash“.  Pumice is also pyroclastic, but it’s considered its own rock type –and it can be of any size. Pyroclastic falls can result from any explosive eruption in which pyroclastic materials fall out from the atmosphere; pyroclastic flows are those that flow out over the ground surface.

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Most tuff contains fragments of pumice in a matrix of ash

Now the rocks. The most common pyroclastic rock is undoubtedly “tuff”, which is composed largely of ash and pumice fragments, erupted mostly during rhyolitic eruptions. Air fall tuff forms from ash that accumulates in layers as it settles from the atmosphere; Ash flow tuff forms from bodies of ash that flow rapidly along the ground, typically incinerating everything in their paths. Because the material flows, it typically does not form layers. Many ash flow tuffs are welded (called “welded tuff”) because of the high temperatures. These highly welded tuffs are sometimes called “ignimbrites”. To identify tuff, look for pieces of pumice floating around in the ashy matrix.

Below’s a view of the Bandelier Tuff in northern New Mexico. It’s a series of ash flow tuffs formed during huge eruptions 1.6 and 1.25 million years ago in the Jemez Mountains. These eruptions formed the Valles-Toledo Caldera (generally just called the “Valles Caldera”). You can get an idea as to the size of the eruptions based on the size of the flows: they’re thick!

Bandelier Tuff, Los Alamos, New Mexico

Cliffs of Bandelier Tuff, erupted from Valles Caldera, New Mexico.

New Zealand’s Taupo Volcanic Zone hosts the most frequent recent rhyolitic eruptions than anywhere else in the world, all active in the last 2 million years. The most recent big eruptions, 26,500 and 1800 years ago, were centered on Lake Taupo, near the middle of the North Island. Below is a map showing the distribution of airfall and ignimbrite (welded ash flow) deposits formed during the eruption at AD 186, just over 1800 years ago. The estimated volume of all eruptive products during this eruption exceeds 105 km3 (Wilson, and Walker, 1985). By comparison, the older “Oruanui” eruption, 26,500 years ago? It likely erupted more than 1000 km3! (Wilson, 2001).

Taupo deposits

Taupo vent (red triangle) and distribution of airfall and ashflow deposits from AD186 eruption.  Inset shows Taupo Volcanic Zone on New Zealand’s North Island. From Wilson and Walker, 1985.

references for Taupo eruptions:
Wilson, C.J.N., and Walker, G.P.L., 1985, The Taupo eruption, New Zealand i. General Aspects, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, v. 314, p. 199-228.

Wilson, C.J.N., 2001, The 26.5 Oruanui eruption, New Zealand: an introduction and overview, Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, v. 112, p. 133-174).

Sedimentary Rock –More details

Sedimentary rock may be clastic, biogenic, or chemical, depending on how the particles formed. Clastic sedimentary rocks contain actual pieces of the pre-existing rock that have been transported from the original source. During this transportation, the particle breaks into smaller grains and typically becomes rounded. Clastic sedimentary rocks are further classified according to grain size: shale contains clay-sized grains; siltstone contains silt-sized grains; sandstone contains sand-sized grains; conglomerate contains grains that are pebble to boulder-sized.

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Clastic sedimentary rocks: shale (left), sandstone (center), and conglomerate (right).

Biogenic sedimentary rocks are those that form through biological activity. By far the most common example is limestone, which forms by the production of calcium carbonate by algae and invertebrate animals for shells.   Other examples include dolomite, which forms by the same process as limestone, and chert, which forms by the accumulation of silica-producing organisms on the sea floor.

Chemical sedimentary rocks form by non-biologically induced precipation of minerals. Examples include sinter and travertine, which consist of silica and calcium carbonate respectively, precipitated from hot water at thermal springs. Another important example is bedded salt, which forms today by evaporation in closed desert basins.

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Tilted sedimentary rocks –started out horizontally.

You can’t see the bedding in the rock samples shown above, but if you were to stand back from an outcrop of sedimentary rocks, you probably could see the bedding. That’s because most individual samples don’t go across bedding but instead come from individual beds.

 

 

Metamorphic Rock –more details

Most metamorphic rocks are classified according to their grain size and the resulting nature of their foliation. Slates are the finest grained metamorphic rock, followed by phyllite, schist, and gneiss, being the coarsest grained. Gneiss is especially distinctive because most of its crystals are readily visible and its foliation is marked by bands of different minerals. In general, crystal size corresponds to the metamorphic grade, or intensity, with the most coarsely crystalline rocks being of the highest grades.

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Metamorphic rocks. From left to right: slate, phyllite, schist, gneiss. Note that each rock has layering (foliation) that is caused by a parallel arrangement of platy minerals within the rock.

And then there are metamorphic rocks that form just because of high temperatures, typically because they were heated by the intrusion of a nearby igneous body. This type of metamorphism, called “contact metamorphism” is a common origin for non-foliated marbles and quartzites. Marble forms by contact metamorphism of limestone and dolomite; quartzite forms by contact metamorphism of sandstone.

The photo on the below shows the igneous rock diorite intruding the sedimentary Helena Dolomite in Glacier National Park, Montana. You can see how contact metamorphism has turned the dolomite next to the intrusion into a white marble. Ooooh!

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Intrusive “sill” of diorite and the resulting contact metamorphism of adjacent gray dolomite to white marble in Glacier National Park, MT.


For more, higher resolution photos of each feature or rock type, try doing a geology keyword search for any of the rock types or features described here. Some useful keywords are “igneous, intrusive, volcanic, metamorphic, sedimentary, phenocryst, tuff, pumice, or volcanic glass” –or any others you can think of. Enjoy!

 

Summarizing Washington State’s Geology –in 19 photo out-takes

Washington State displays such an incredible array of geologic processes and features that it makes me gasp –which is one reason why writing “Roadside Geology of Washington” was such a wonderful experience. I also got to do it with my long-time friend and colleague (and former thesis advisor at the University of Washington) Darrel Cowan. The book should be on bookshelves in mid-September –and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate than by summarizing Washington’s amazing geology with a bunch of out-take photos –ones that didn’t made it into the book or even to my editor. Like the photo below:

Mount Baker, Washington (150916-4)

Mt. Baker, a glaciated stratovolcano in northern Washington State.

Mount Baker’s a stratovolcano that erupted its way through the metamorphic rock of the North Cascades. I took the photo from the parking lot at a spot called Artist’s Point –at the end of WA 542 –and my editor nixed it because I already had enough snow-capped volcanoes in the book.

On the cross-section below–which includes elements of Oregon as well as Washington, Mt. Baker is represented by the pink volcano-shaped thing labelled “High Cascades”. The following 15 or so photos illustrate most of the other features on the cross-section –so together, they illustrate much of the geology and geologic history of the state!

Cross-section across PNW

Generalized cross-section across Washington and Oregon.

Washington State and geologic provinces

Washington State and geologic provinces.

A quick note about organization: I’m separating the images according to their  physiographic province. There are six in Washington: Coast Range, Puget Lowland, North Cascades, South Cascades, Okanogan Highlands, and Columbia Basin.

 

Coast Range:
As you can see in the cross-section, the Coast Range borders the Cascadia Subduction Zone and consists of three main elements: the Hoh Accretion Assemblage in yellow, Siletzia (called the “Crescent Formation” in Washington) in purple, and the post-accretion sedimentary rock in brown. Siletzia is the oldest. It was thrust over the Hoh Accretion Assemblage, which is still being accreted at the subduction zone. The post-Accretion sedimentary rocks were deposited over the top of Siletzia after it was accreted about 50 million years ago.

And here are some photos! Siletzia formed as an oceanic plateau and so is characterized Read more…

Oregon’s rocky headlands: geologic recycling through erosion and uplift and erosion…

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Crashing waves at Heceta Head, Oregon

You can’t avoid thinking about erosion while standing on one of Oregon’s rocky headlands. The waves keep coming, one after another, each crashing repeatedly against the same rock. Impossibly, the rock appears unmoved and unchanged. How can it not erode?

The answer, of course, is that headlands do erode, quickly, but on a geologic time scale. We just miss out because we live on the much shorter human time scale. And the erosion belongs to a cycle in which coastal uplift causes eroded and flattened headlands to rise and become headlands once again, all subject to more ongoing erosion and uplift.

Wave energy is most intense at headlands because the incoming wave typically feels the ocean bottom near the headland first, which causes the wave to refract. As shown in the aerial photo below, this refraction focuses the wave energy on the headland.

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Wave refraction causes wave energy to focus on the headland. Arrows are perpendicular to wave fronts.

As you can see in the next few images, headlands don’t erode evenly. They erode irregularly, as the waves exploit any kind of weakness in the rocks such as faults and fractures, or if they’re sedimentary, bedding surfaces. The products of this erosion are as beautiful as they are interesting: sea stacks, sea arches, sea caves… The list goes on and on.

Headland and lighthouse, Heceta Head, Oregon

Aerial view of Heceta Head, Oregon.

From the above photo, you can see that sea stacks are simply the leftover remains of a headland as it retreats from erosion. That’s a critical point, because some sea stacks, especially the one with the arch in the photo below, are a long way from today’s coastline.

Sea stacks and sea arch, southern Oregon

Sea stacks and sea arch, southern Oregon

Those rocks, 1/4 to a 1/2 mile away used to be a part of the coastline? The land used to be way out there? YES!!! For me, that’s one of the very coolest things about sea stacks –they so demonstrate the constant change taking place through erosion.

Taken to its extreme, erosion renders headlands into wave-cut platforms, such as the one below at Sunset Bay. Being in the intertidal zone, these platforms make great places for tide-pooling–and ironically, for people-watching too. Geologically, they form important markers because they’re both flat and form at sea level. When found at higher elevations, they indicate uplift.

Wave-cut bench, Sunset Bay, Oregon

Wave-cut bench at Sunset Bay, Oregon

In fact, looking carefully at the photo above, you can see a flat surface on the other side of the bay. It’s an uplifted wave-cut platform! Called a marine terrace, it’s covered by gravel and sand originally deposited in the intertidal zone. Those deposits rest on bedrock that, at an earlier time, was also flattened by the waves. The photo below shows a better view of this terrace from the other side.

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Breaking wave at Shore Acres State Park, Oregon. Tree-covered flat surface in the background is an uplifted marine terrace.

These uplifted marine terraces can be found up and down Oregon’s coastline. Researchers recognize several different levels, the oldest being those uplifted to highest elevations. The one in the photo above at Shore Acres State Park is called the Whiskey Run Terrace and formed about 80,000 years ago. You can see a similar-aged terrace below as the flat surface beneath the lighthouse at Cape Blanco, Oregon’s westernmost point. An older, higher terrace forms the grass-covered flat area on the right side of the photo.

Cape Blanco, Oregon

Cape Blanco, Oregon looking NE. The flat surface beneath the lighthouse is the ~80,000 year-old Cape Blanco Terrace, probably equivalent to the Whiskey Run Terrace at Shore Acres; the flat area on the right side of the photo is the higher Pioneer Terrace,  formed ~105,000 years ago.

Researchers take the approximate ages of the terraces and their elevations to calculate approximate rates of uplift. In this area, Kelsey (1990) estimated a rate of between 4-12 inches of uplift every 1000 years. That might seem slow, but over hundreds of thousands of years, it can accomplish a great deal.

And look! The uplifted terraces? They’re on headlands! Of course, because they’ve been uplifted! And the headlands are now eroding into sea stacks and then platforms –to be uplifted in the future and preserved as marine terraces that sit on top headlands. And on and on, as long as the coastline continues rising.

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Blowhole near Yachats, Oregon. Incoming wave funnels up a channel eroded along a fracture and explodes upwards on reaching the end.

Some links and references:
Kelsey, H.M., 1990, Late Quaternary deformation of marine terraces of the Cascadia Subduction Zone near Cape Blanco, Oregon: Tectonics, v. 9, p. 983-1014. (Detailed study of Cape Blanco, including uplift rates).

Miller, M., 2014, Roadside Geology of Oregon, Mountain Press, Missoula, 386p. (General reference which details the concepts and includes several of the photos used here).

Earth Science Photographs–free downloads for Instructors or anybody: my webpage!

Landscape and Rock–4 favorite photos from 2015

Landscape and bedrock… seems we seldom connect the two. We all like beautiful landscapes, but most of us don’t ask how they formed –and even fewer of us think about the story told by the rocks that lie beneath it all. Those make two time scales, the faster one of landscape evolution and the much slower one of the rock record. Considering that we live in our present-day human time scale, it’s no wonder there’s a disconnect!

Take this photo of Mt. Shuksan in northern Washington. My daughter Meg and I drove up to the parking lot at Heather Meadows and went for a quick hike to stretch our legs and take some pictures just before sunset.We had about a half hour before the light faded –and all I could think about was taking a photo of this amazing mountain. But the geology? What??

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1. Mt. Shuksan and moonrise, northern Washington Cascades.

Thankfully, I’d been there in September scoping out a possible field project with a new grad student, and had the time to reflect… on time. From the ridge we hiked, shown as the dark area in the lower left corner of the left-hand photo below, we could almost feel Shuksan’s glaciers sculpting the mountain into its present shape. Certainly, that process is imperceptibly slow by human standards.

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Mt. Shuksan: its glaciated NW side, summit, and outcrop of the Bell Pass Melange.

But the glaciers are sculpting bedrock –and that bedrock reveals its own story, grounded in a much longer time scale.

It turns out that the rock of Mt. Shuksan formed over tens of millions of years on three separate fragments of Earth’s lithosphere, called terranes. These terranes came together along faults that were then accreted to North America sometime during the Cretaceous. At the top of the peak you can find rock of the Easton Terrane. The Easton Terrane contains blueschist, a metamorphic rock that forms under conditions of high pressures and relatively low temperatures, such as deep in a subduction zone. Below that lies the Bell Pass Melange (right photo) –unmetamorphosed rock that is wonderfully messed up. And below that lies volcanic and sedimentary rock of the Chilliwack Group.

Here’s another of my favorites from 2015: the Keystone Thrust! It’s an easy picture to take –you just need to fly into the Las Vegas airport from the north or south, and you fly right over it. It’s the contact between the gray ledgey (ledgy? ledgeee?) rock on the left and the tan cliffs that go up the middle of the photo.

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2. Keystone Thrust fault, Nevada–gray Cambrian ridges over tan Jurassic cliffs.

The gray rock is part of the Cambrian Bonanza King Formation, which is mostly limestone, and the tan cliffs consist of  Jurassic Aztec Sandstone. Cambrian, being the time period from about 540-485 million years, is a lot older than the Jurassic, which spanned the time 200-145 million years ago. Older rock over younger rock like that requires a thrust fault.

Talk about geologic history… the thrust fault formed during a period of mountain building during the Cretaceous Period, some 100-70 million years ago, long before the present mountains. And the rocks? The limestone formed in a shallow marine environment and the sandstone in a sand “sea” of the same scale as today’s Sahara Desert. We know it was that large because the Aztec Sandstone is the same rock as the Navajo Sandstone in Zion and Arches national parks.

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left: Limestone of the Cambrian Bonanza King Formation near Death Valley; right: Cross-bedded sandstone of the Jurassic Navajo Sandstone in Zion NP, Utah.

So… the photo shows cliffs and ledges made of rocks that tell a story of different landscapes that spans 100s of millions of years. But today’s cliffs and ledges are young, having formed by erosion of the much older rock.  Then I flew over it in about 30 seconds.

At Beach 2 near Shi Shi Beach in Washington State are some incredible sea stacks, left standing (temporarily) as the sea erodes the headlands. The sea stack and arch in the photo below illustrates the continuous nature of this erosion. Once the arch fails, the seaward side of the headland will be isolated as another sea stack, larger, but really no different than the sea stack to its left. And so it goes.

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3. Sea arch and headland at Beach 2, Olympic Coast, Washington.

And of course, the headland’s made of rock that tells its own story –of  deposition offshore and getting scrunched up while getting added to the edge of the continent.

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Bedrock at Beach 2 consists mostly of sandstone and breccia. The white fragment is limestone mixed with sandstone fragments.

And finally, my last “favorite”. It’s of an unnamed glacial valley in SE Alaska. My daughter and I flew by it in a small plane en route to Haines, Alaska to visit my cousin and his wife. More amazing landscape–carved by glaciers a long time ago. But as you can expect, the rock that makes it up is even older and tells it’s own story.

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4. Glacial Valley cutting into Chilkat Mountains, SE Alaska.

Of course, this message of three time scales, the human, the landscape, and the rock-record time scale applies everywhere we go. Ironically, we’re usually in a hurry. I wish I kept it in mind more often, as it might slow me down a little.

Here’s to 2015 –and to 2016.

To see or download these four images at higher resolutions, please visit my webpage: favorite 10 geology photos of 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conglomerate!

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

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