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Geology and Geologic Time through Photographs

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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!

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!

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