Geology and Geologic Time through Photographs

Archive for the tag “nature”

Mauna Loa Volcano, Hawai’i –Earth’s largest active volcano

To get an idea of the immensity of Mauna Loa Volcano, take a look at the photo below. That rounded shape continues from its summit area at 13,678 feet above sea level to about 18,000 feet below sea level –and then another 25,000 feet or so below that because the mountain has sunk into the oceanic crust. It’s unquestionably the world’s largest active volcano.

Mauna Loa Shield Volcano

Profile of Mauna Loa Shield Volcano from… Mauna Loa Shield Volcano! (Geologypics: (170919s-15))

Briefly, Mauna Loa’s made of basalt. Basaltic lava flows, being comparatively low in silica, have low viscosities and so cannot maintain steep slopes, resulting in broad, relatively low gradient volcanoes called shields. With just a little imagination, you can see how Mauna Loa’s shape resembles that back side of some shield one of King Arthur’s Knights might carry into battle.

Here are a few more numbers. The mountain covers an area of 1900 square miles (5100 km3) of land and has a volume of 18,000 cubic miles (75,000 km3). 18,000 cubic miles??? That’s 18x the volume of air estimated by the National Park Service that’s between the rims in the Grand Canyon!

Considering that Mauna Loa’s oldest lavas (deep beneath the seafloor) are no older than 1 million years old and probably much younger –that’s a lot of lava in a geologically short period of time. And we’re experiencing its growth today –the volcano last erupted in 1984 –and 32 times before that since 1843.

To gain more appreciation for this huge mountain, look at this geologic map of Hawaii, made by the USGS in 2007.

Hawaii Geo

2007 USGS Geologic Map of Hawai’i. Lavas from Mauna Loa, cover half the island.

Mauna Loa volcano, outlined in white, covers half the Big Island of Hawai’i. From the map, you can also see that many of its lavas erupted from the summit area, now a caldera –and that most of the other lavas came from fissures along the volcano’s southwestern and northeastern flanks. If you click on the map, you can see it in a larger view.

Note that the red-colored area, lavas from Kilauea, make up the southeastern coast. That’s where most of the eruptive activity is now, but Mauna Loa’s not at all finished.


September, 2017 -hiking the volcano

This September, I spent 4 days backpacking up Mauna Loa’s northeastern flank to its summit –and I got to do it with my daughter Lindsay and her friend Morgan. What an incredible trip –41 miles of young lava in 4 days.

What follows are photos and descriptions of some of Mauna Loa’s amazing features. For starters, it was beautiful. We walked over a dizzying array of shapes and colors created by both pahoehoe and aa flows, some of which were younger than me. In general, the older flows, being more oxidized, took on a rustier-brown appearance.


younger aa lava (left) and older pahoehoe (right)

Below is a view of the NE Rift of the volcano, the source of much of Mauna Loa’s recent lavas. The view’s from Red Hill, an 8600 year-old cinder cone. There’s a hut at Red Hill where we spent our first and third nights.

NE Rift, Mauna Loa Volcano

NE Rift, Mauna Loa Volcano. (geologypics: 170918s-149)

Our second day, we walked up the NE flank, across and along lava flows all erupted within the last 200 years. And cinder cones –and spatter cones–and, and, and!

Pahoehoe basalt and cinder cone, Mauna Loa

hiking on pahoehoe basalt flow; cinder cone in background. (geologypics: 170917s-14)

And here’s my favorite cinder cone, at an elevation of about 12,500. It’s called Pohaku ‘ohanalei –and you can see a pahoehoe flow coming right out of it! And it’s really glassy–look at how reflective it is. In fact, most of the flows were glassy.

Cinder cone and lava flows, Mauna Loa

Pohaku ‘ohanalei. Cinder cone and pahoehoe. (geologypics: 170917s-49)

Once you reach the elevation of 13,000′,  you cross a couple big cracks that are part of the rift zone and then you walk across a frozen lava lake. The lava lake fills the so-called “North pit” of the summit caldera and is partly filled with lava from 1984. 1984… I’m older than that.

Frozen lava lake, Mauna Loa

Frozen lava lake in north pit of caldera; summit of Mauna Loa shield volcano in background. Note the extrusions along fractures on either side of the surface in the foreground. (geologypics:170918s-55)

The Summit:

We spent our 2nd night in a hut on the southeastern rim of the caldera –directly across the caldera from the summit. Our plan was to get a good start in the morning and go back to the trail junction at about 13,000 feet where we’d drop our packs and hike the 5 mile trip to the summit and back, get our packs, and then hike down to Red Hill.

But first… the night sky from 13,250 in the middle of the Pacific, with the rounded summit of Mauna Loa in silhouette was something I’ll never forget. Cosmos and Cosmic–I fell in love. Here’s the sunrise view. The cracks form along the edge of the caldera–the floor of which is some 150-200′ straight down.

Summit caldera and fractures, Mauna Loa, Hawaii

Summit caldera and ring fractures, Mauna Loa at sunrise. (geologypics: 170918s-11f)

That morning, we hiked to the trail junction and dropped our packs and walked up to the summit. It was nice to not carry anything except a camera! Here’s a photo from near the top –it shows a pahoehoe flow coming from …space!

Edge of summit caldera, Mauna Loa

Western edge of summit caldera, Mauna Loa –showing pressure ridges in frozen lava lake and older basaltic lava flows. Pahoehoe flow in foreground is cut off by caldera ring fault. (geologypics: 170918s-68)

That’s because the lava predates caldera formation –the other side of that lava flow is buried under all the new lava that now fills the caldera.  And here we are! I forgot to brush my hair. By the time we got back, I had some nice dreads going.


Summit selfie! Marli (left), Lindsay (center), Morgan (right).

We got back to the trail junction at about 12:30pm –where we saw the only other people of the whole trip –they were taking a day hike from the Mauna Loa Observatory, which you can reach by car from the Saddle Road.


Orange peels are NOT biodegradable

That’s also where I noticed these orange peels. Orange peels! Really? Orange peels dry out and get hard and DO NOT BIODEGRADE –unless you give them something like 1000 years. There’s also a punch of toilet paper scattered about up there. Come on people! Pack out your crap!


The Descent:

Back at our packs, Lindsay pointed out (again) how little time we had to get back to the hut at Red Hill, 9 miles away–unless we wanted to get stuck on the lava flows when it was dark. So we bombed down the mountain at what felt like 90 mph (it was more like 2mph, actually) –and we reached Red Hill with an hour to spare. And the views? Awesome!

Pahoehoe and aa basalt, Mauna Loa

Pahoehoe (left) and aa basalt, Mauna Loa. Dewey Cinder Cone in background. (Geologypics: 170918s-103)

I especially loved seeing Mauna Kea, which we could see from Mauna Loa’s summit all the way down to Red Hill. Mauna Kea is the big shield volcano next to Mauna Loa, and actually a little higher. If you compare their overall sizes on the geologic map though, you’ll see that Mauna Loa is still a lot bigger.


Mauna Loa Volcano from Red Hill

And here’s Morgan watching the sunset from Red Hill.170916s-45c


And finally…

…back to the immensity of this volcano. The day before we started our hike, we drove around to the other side of the island to the town of Captain Cook where we  snorkled at Kealakekua Bay. It turns out that the lava flows in the sea cliffs are also part of Mauna Loa –you can see that on the geologic map (Kealakekua Bay is marked). That’s actually the profile of the volcano in the background. And those sea cliffs are there because it’s the head scarp of a giant undersea landslide!


Sea cliffs at Kealakekua Bay, formed as the headscarp of an undersea landslide (Geologypics: 170915s-10c)


Most of these photos are freely downloadable at slightly higher resolutions from my website: You can type the id number (visible in the photo’s caption) into the keyword search –or you can just type “Mauna Loa” into the search to see these and a whole lot of other images!

Thanks for looking.






– A new (and free) resource for geological photographs

What better way to kick off my new website than to write about it on my blog? To see it, you just need to click on the word “home” in the space above. Or you can click the link:

Here’s part of the front page:

As it says, the site offers free downloads for instructors –and for anybody who’s craving a good geology photograph. It’s my way of contributing to geology education –showing off some of our landscape’s amazing stories and providing resources for other folks who want to do the same.

I think the best part of the whole site is that red button in the middle of the home page. It says “Image Search by Keyword”.

Right now, there are more than 2200 images you can search for — all of which are downloadable at resolutions that generally work for powerpoint. If you search for “sea stack” for example, you’ll get 38 hits –and the page will look like this:

Sea Stack search

First page of sea stacks when you search on the term.


Notice that ALL the photos are presented as squares–which works for most photos, but not all. To help mitigate that, the photos with vertical or panorama formats say so in their title, so you know to click on them to see the whole image. Take the photo in the upper center, for example –it’s got a  vertical format. Here it is:vertial image


A more detailed caption below the photo, along with its ID number appears at the bottom of the pic. This particular image is the chapter opener to the Coast Range in my new book “Roadside Geology of Washington“, which I wrote with Darrel Cowan of University of Washington.

There are also galleries –a chance to browse a variety of images without having to think of keywords. Similar to the search, they’re presented as squares so you need to click on the photo to see the whole thing.


Here’s what the photo gallery page looks like (on the left), followed by part of the “glaciation” page you’d see if you clicked on “glaciation”.  Woohoo!


part of Galleries page (left) and part of Glacial page (right)


Then there’s the “About” page, which gives some information about me and details my policies regarding use of the images (basically, you can download freely for your personal, non-commercial use if you give me credit; if you want to use the image in a commercial publication you need to contact me to negotiate fees). There’s also a “News” page, that gives updates on the website. There’s a contact page from which you can send me emails. And the blog? It goes right back to here!

And finally, if you’re looking for a great web designer? Try Kathleen Istudor at Wildwood SEO –she created the site and spent hours coaching me on how to manage it.

Enjoy the site!


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…


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.


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.


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.


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!

Scientists, Science, Icicles, and Faith

In January, I started teaching the Introductory Geology course “Environmental Geology and Landform Development” –with two lecture sections of about 200 students each. And this course, populated largely by folks who are fulfilling a science requirement and  otherwise try to avoid science like it was the plague, needed some general statement about science. After all, it’s science that may someday save them from the plague!

So science… what is it? Seems like scientists themselves have a zillion different definitions, so I started with “Scientist. –What’s a scientist?” If you google “scientist” and then look at the images, you see this. As this image is a screenshot of photos that aren’t mine, I intentionally blurred it, but you should get the idea of what’s there.


Really??? these are the most popular images of scientists and in every picture–save the tiny one in the lower right– is some person in a WHITE LAB COAT and a microscope or a beaker. Ironically, it shows about 50% of the scientists as women. Go figure there too.

Looks like we’ve been fed a misrepresentation of what scientists are. We actually do a wide variety of things. In geology, we do a wide wide range of things. We spend time in the field (see picture below), we write, we draw maps and cross-sections, we look down microscopes (maybe in jeans and t-shirts), we write computer models, we do experiments, and we sometimes wear white lab coats.


Geologist inspecting a fault zone between the dark-colored Beck Spring Dolomite and the overlying light-brown Noonday Dolomite. Death Valley, California.

All the time, we’re trying to understand something about our world. Our universe. We’re collecting information (data). We’re testing ideas. We’re adding detail to somebody else’s ideas. We’re building a framework of knowledge that’s grounded in our observations and testable ideas. Replace the word “ideas” with “hypotheses” in this paragraph –and you get science.

Ideally, most scientists approach their work using the “scientific method” –which is a highfalutin way of saying they see something they don’t understand (an observation), which causes them to ask a question (like how did this happen?); they come up with ideas (hypotheses) that may explain it, and then they test those hypotheses.



Which is what we did in class with icicles! The month before–in mid-December–Eugene had this incredible ice storm, which covered everything in ice to make it look like a scene from the movie Frozen. It was beautiful and destructive. And we can all pretty much guess how icicles form: water starts to drip off the branch but freezes before it falls off. Icicles grow straight downward off the branch because water, like everything else, falls vertically with gravity.

As it turned out, some of the icicles seemed to grow straight out from the branches. Look at the photo below! How could this be? We know icicles should grow straight downwards! So as a group, we came up with some hypotheses, shown below next to the picture. I was the proud sponsor of hypothesis #4 and #5.


Alternate hypotheses to explain near horizontal growth of icicles

As a group (all 200 of us), we could rule out hypothesis #3, that the picture was rotated. I shot the image and promised I didn’t rotate it! We could also rule out hypothesis #4, that the ice somehow grew horizontally towards the branch, because that idea conflicted with all previous observations we’d made on icicles, that they grow away from the branch as ice progressively freezes.

That left hypotheses #1, #2, #5. We figured ways we could test #1, #2. If it were the wind, for example, we’d expect all the icicles to go in one direction in a given place, regardless of the limb angle. If it were #2, we might expect to see some icicles show a curve to indicate progressive tilting of the branch–which you can actually see in the photo above!

Hypothesis #5, that “Some magical force caused it to grow sideways”isn’t testable. It’s NOT TESTABLE. We can’t come up with ways to support it or rule it out. You can believe it if you want to, but it’s not science.

That’s the point. To be scientific, a hypothesis must be testable. Most of us hold various non-scientific beliefs in our hearts that we know to be true –for us. I think that’s a good thing. For many of us, those beliefs lend us qualities like strength or courage or compassion when we need them the most. They’re still not scientific.

And that’s what really gripes me about the “scientific creationists” –as well as today’s Republican Party. The “scientific creationists” say they use science to demonstrate the existence of God, or that Earth is young –when believing either requires a suspension of science and an act of Faith. By claiming they’re being scientific, the “scientific creationists” hamstring their own belief system. They take the wonder out of religion and render it baseless and sterile.

And the Republicans? They’re now all about “alternative facts”. Maybe it’s unfair to group “all Republicans” together –but I see very few standing up to this reckless leader we have. Maybe they just lack integrity.


this photo was rotated

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??


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.

Shuksan combo

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

















A trip to Death Valley over Thanksgiving two weeks ago reignited all sorts of things in my brain, one of which being my love of conglomerate. Honestly, conglomerate HAS to be the coolest rock!


Tilted conglomerate in Furnace Creek Wash, Death Valley.

Just look at this stuff! Just like any good clastic sedimentary rock, it consists of particles of older rock–but with conglomerate, you can easily see those particles. Each of those particles opens a different door to experiencing deep geologic time.

As an example, look at the conglomerate below, from the Kootenai Formation of SW Montana. It contains many different cobbles of light gray and dark gray quartzite and pebbles of black chert. The quartzite came the Quadrant Formation and chert from the Phosphoria Formation. So just at first glance, you can see that this conglomerate in the Kootenai contains actual pieces of two other older rock units.


Conglomerate of the Kootenai Formation, SW Montana.

But consider this: The Quadrant formed as coastal sand dunes during the Pennsylvanian Period, between about 320-300 million years ago and the Phosphoria chert accumulated in a deep marine environment during the Permian, from about 300-250 million years ago. The Kootenai formed as river deposits during the early part of the Cretaceous Period, about 120 million years ago. All those are now together as one.

Similar to the modern river below (except for the glaciers), the Kootenai rivers transported gravel away from highlands –the highlands being made of much older rock that was uplifted and exposed to erosion. That older rock speaks to long gone periods of Earth history while the gravel speaks to the day it’s deposited.


Athabasca River in Jasper National Park, Alberta

But this is where my head starts to spin: the modern gravel is made of rounded fragments of old rock –so when you look at a conglomerate, you glimpse at least two time periods at once: you see the conglomerate, which reflects a river or alluvial fan –or any environment near a bedrock source– and you also see the particles, which formed in even older environments.

And it gets worse –or better. What happens when you see a conglomerate eroding? The conglomerate is breaking up into modern sediment, which consists of pieces of older sediment –that at one time was modern sediment that used to be older sediment?  Look at the pebbles below. I keep them in a rusty metal camping cup on a table in my office.


“Recycled” pebbles of the Kootenai Formation.

These stream pebbles eroded out of the Kootenai conglomerate. So… they’re simultaneously modern stream pebbles and ancient ones –AND… they originated as the Quadrant and Phosphoria Formations. Four periods of time, spanning 300 million years, all come together at once.

And if that’s not enough, those conglomerates in Death Valley? They  contain particles of… conglomerate! Look! The arrow in the left photo points to the boulder of conglomerate on the right. If you click on the photos, you can see them enlarged.

All those particles, which are now eroding and becoming modern sediment, were yesterday’s sediment. And the conglomerate boulder? It too is becoming “modern sediment” and it too was “yesterday’s sediment” when it was deposited on an alluvial fan with the rest of the material. However, it goes a step further: its pebbles and cobbles were both “modern” and “yesterday’s” sediment at a still older time. And before that? Those pebbles and cobbles eroded from even older rock units, some of which date from the Cambrian, about 500 million years ago.

For fun, here’s a photo of another conglomerate boulder.

Conglomerate clast in conglomerate

Conglomerate boulder in conglomerate of the Furnace Creek Formation, Death Valley, CA.


I can’t help but wonder how Young Earth Creationists would deal with these rocks. Given their story of the Grand Canyon, in which the Paleozoic section was deposited during early stages of “The Flood” and the canyon was carved during the later stages (they really do say that too!), they’d probably roll out that same blanket answer: The Flood. End of discussion. No questioning, no wondering.

In my opinion, one of the beautiful things about geology is that we’re always questioning and wondering.



for more geology photos, please visit my website.





San Andreas Fault

Here’s a view of the San Andreas fault and Pt. Reyes in northern California, looking northward.  The fault runs right up the narrow Tomales Bay–and in just a few miles, runs along the edge of San Francisco.

The San Andreas fault is amazingly well-studied –it’s probably the most-studied fault zone in the world.  After all, it is capable of generating huge earthquakes in heavily populated areas, so the more we know about it the better.

San Andreas fault and Tomales Bay

Aerial view of San Andreas fault and Pt. Reyes --just north of San Francisco. View is to the north. The fault runs down Tomales Bay, the narrow arm of the ocean that runs diagonally across the photo.

One thing we know about the San Andreas is that it generally moves in a side-by-side way (strike-slip) so that rock on the east side moves south relative to that on the west side.  And over time, the fault has moved the eastern rock more than 300km relative to the western rock.

Now, 300 km –that speaks to millions of years of geologic time.  We can measure the rate at which the Pacific Plate moves relative to the North American Plate –about 4.5 cm/year.  The San Andreas takes up most of that –but not all.  But if we assume it takes it all, we’re looking at a total of 300km at 4.5cm/year –so at least 6.6 million years.

Of course… if you think planet Earth is only 10,000 years old, that means the fault’s moved some 300 meters (3 football fields) every 10 years.  And considering that the displacement was about 6 meters during the M 8.3 1906 San Francisco Earthquake…that’s a lot of earthquakes in just a short period of time!

Or another way of putting it, if planet Earth were 10,000 years old AND the San Andreas fault formed at the very beginning, 10,000 years ago… then there must have been 50 of those San-Francisco-sized Earthquakes every ten years –or… 5 of those every year.  Yikes!

But of course… we know that the San Andreas isn’t as old as the planet.  It cuts that granite at Pt. Reyes… which is related to the Sierra Nevada granite –which is really pretty young –but older than 10,000 years by about 100 million.

click here if you want to see more photos of the San Andreas fault –with a map!

Great Unconformity in Montana –and rising seas during the Cambrian

Here’s yet another picture of the Great Unconformity –this time in southwestern Montana.  Once again, Cambrian sandstone overlies Precambrian gneiss.  You can see a thin intrusive body, called a dike, cutting through the gneiss on the right side.  You can also see that the bottom of the sandstone is actually a conglomerate –made of quartzite cobbles derived from some nearby outcrops during the Cambrian.

Great unconformity in SW Montana.

Photo of Cambrian Flathead Sandstone overlying Proterozoic gneiss in SW Montana.


And that’s me in the photo.  My left hand is on the sandstone –some 520 million years or so old; my right hand is on the gneiss, some 1.7 BILLION years old.  There’s more than a billion years of missing rock record between my two hands.  Considering that the entire Paleozoic section from the top of the Inner Gorge in the Grand Canyon to the top of the rim represents about 300 million years and is some 3500′ thick… yikes!

And… just like in the Grand Canyon and elsewhere, there is Cambrian age shale and limestone above the sandstone.  This rock sequence reflects rising sea levels during the Cambrian.  It’s called the “Cambrian Transgression”, when the sea moved up onto the continent, eventually inundating almost everywhere.  If you look at the diagram below, you can see how this sequence formed.

Marine transgression

Sequence of rock types expected during a transgression of the sea onto a continent.

If you look at time 1, you can see a coastline in cross-section, with sand being deposited closest to shore, mud a little farther out, and eventually carbonate material even farther out.  As sea levels rise (time 2), the sites of deposition for these materials migrates landward, putting mud deposition on top the earlier sand deposition and so on.  At time 3, the sequence moves even farther landward, resulting in carbonate over mud over sand.  If these materials become preserved and turned into rock, they form the sequence sandstone overlain by shale overlain by limestone –just what we see on top the Great Unconformity.




Great Unconformity –in the Teton Range, Wyoming

As it turns out, the “Great Unconformity”, the contact between Cambrian sedimentary rock and the underlying Precambrian basement rock, is a regional feature –it’s not only in the Grand Canyon, but found all over the Rocky Mountain West –and for that matter, it’s even in the midwest.  As an example, here are a couple photos from the Teton Range in Wyoming.

The yellow arrow points to the contact between the Cambrian Sandstone and underlying Precambrian metamorphic rock... the Great unconformity.

This top photo shows the Grand Teton (right) and Mt. Owen (left) in the background… in the foreground, you can see a flat bench, which is underlain by flat-lying Cambrian sandstone.  Below that are darker-colored cliffs of Precambrian metamorphic rock.  The unconformity is right at their contact (arrow).

Also notice that the Grand Teton and Mt. Owen are made of metamorphic (and igneous) rock –but they’re much much higher in elevation than the sandstone.  That’s because there’s a fault, called the “Buck Mountain fault” that lies in-between the two.  The Buck Mountain fault moved the rock of the high peaks over the ones in the foreground during a mountain-building event at the end of the Mesozoic Era.  Because the metamorphic and igneous rock is so much more resistant to erosion than the sandstone, it stands up a lot higher.

Precambrian metamorphic and igneous rock of the Teton Range and overlying sedimentary rock.

This lower photo shows the view of the Teton range from the top of the sandstone bench (appropriately called “Table Mountain”).  As you look eastward towards the range, you can pick out the Buck Mountain fault (between the metamorphic and igneous rock of the high peaks) and the Cambrian sedimentary rock (the layered rocks).  Significantly, the Cambrian rocks, just like in the Grand Canyon, consist of sandstone, overlain by shale, overlain by limestone.

And geologic time… remember… for the sandstone to be deposited on the metamorphic or igneous rock, the metamorphic and igneous rock had to get uplifted from miles beneath the surface and exposed at sea level.  And since then, it’s been uplifted to the elevation of The Grand Teton (13370′) and Mt. Owen (12, 928′) !

Click here to see more photos of unconformities.
or… click here to see a geologic map of Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

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