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Geology and Geologic Time through Photographs

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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!

 

Sampling New Zealand’s (Amazing) Geology

New Zealand’s landscape can make just about anybody appreciate geology. Its glaciated peaks, its coastline –that ranges from ragged cliffs to sandy beaches to glacial fjords– its active volcanoes… they all work together to shout “Earth Science!” With that in mind, here’s some basics of New Zealand’s amazing geology, followed by some geological highlights of my trip of January and early February, 2018.

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Map of New Zealand, showing accreted terranes in colors and cover assemblage in gray.

North and South Island Bedrock  The different colors on this map show New Zealand’s basement rock, named so because it forms the lowest known bedrock foundation of any given area. The basement tells stories of New Zealand’s deep past, from about 500-100 million years ago. Individual colors signify different terranes, accreted (added) one-by-one through plate motions to the edge of what was then the supercontinent Gondwana. They mostly consist of sedimentary and metamorphosed sedimentary rock, although the narrow belt of purple-colored Dun Mountain Ophiolite formed as oceanic lithosphere, and the red-colored areas consist of granitic igneous rock, some of which has been metamorphosed to gneiss.

Gray indicates the younger cover rock, formed after accretion of the terranes. Consisting of a wide range of sedimentary and volcanic rocks, as well as recently deposited sediment, it’s just as interesting and variable as the terranes. Because it includes volcanoes, it’s largely the cover that gives the North Island its distinctive flair. By contrast, the South Island consists largely of uplifted basement rock, much of which has been –and still is—glaciated. All those long deep lakes, such as Lakes Wanaka and Tekapo, were carved by glaciers and are now floored with their deposits of till.

Andesite stratovolcano, New Zealand

Mt. Ngauruhoe, a 7000 year-old andesite stratocone near Ruapehu on the North Island

Those differences exist largely because the North and South Islands occupy different plate tectonic settings. The North Island sits over a subduction zone, so it hosts an active 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…

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.

Read more…

Geologypics.com– 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: geologypics.com.

Here’s part of the front page:
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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!

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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…

Washington’s waterfalls–behind each one is a rock!

Of all the many reasons why waterfalls are great, here’s another: they expose bedrock! And that bedrock tells a story extending back in time long long before the waterfall. This posting describes 9 waterfalls that together paint a partial picture of Washington’s geologic history. The photos and diagrams will all appear in my forthcoming book Roadside Geology of Washington (Mountain Press) that I wrote with Darrel Cowan of the University of Washington.

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Rainbow falls along WA 6 in the Coast Range

 

And waterfalls in heavily forested areas are especially great because they may give the only view of bedrock for miles around! Take Rainbow Falls, for example–the small waterfall on the left. It’s in Washington’s Coast Range along State Highway 6–a place where a roadside geologist could otherwise fall into total despair for lack of good rock exposure. But this beautiful waterfall exposes a lava flow of the Grande Ronde Basalt, which belongs to the Columbia River Basalt Group. Significant? Yes!

This lava erupted in southeastern Washington and northeastern Oregon between about 16 and 15.6 million years ago and completely flooded the landscape of northern Oregon and southern Washington. We know how extensive these flows are because we can see them–and they cover the whole region. The photo below shows them at Palouse Falls in the eastern part of Washington. Take a look at my earlier blog post about the Columbia River Basalt Group? (includes 15 photos and a map).

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.

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.

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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.

Cambrian-Jurassic

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

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