Geology and Geologic Time through Photographs

Archive for the tag “rocks”

Rocks! –a brief illustrated primer

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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!


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.


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


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.

 Intro-1. Ig rx-CS4
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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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!


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…– 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…

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 –Grand Canyon, Arizona

So just like intrusive igneous rocks, metamorphic rocks require great lengths of time to accomplish the uplift and erosion in order to be exposed at Earth’s surface.

So what do we make of this photograph?  It shows a sequence of sandstone, shale, and limestone sitting on top metamorphic rock (called the “Vishnu Schist”) in the Grand Canyon.  The sandstone was deposited right on top the schist.

Great unconformity, Grand Canyon, Arizona

Sequence of Cambrian sandstone (the ledge across the middle of the photo), shale (the overlying slopes) and limestone (the upper cliffs) deposited on top the Vishnu Schist in the Grand Canyon.


Since sedimentary rocks, like sandstone, shale, or limestone, are deposited at Earth’s surface –and metamorphic rock forms beneath the surface, this photo shows that BEFORE the sedimentary rocks were deposited, the metamorphic rock (schist) had to have been uplifted and exposed.  So all the time required to bring the schist to the surface had to take place before the sandstone was even deposited.

The surface of contact between the sandstone and the schist is called an unconformity because it is here that we see evidence for a great deal of missing rock record.  The sandstone must be much younger than the schist –for the very reason that the schist first had to get uplifted and exposed at the surface before the sandstone was deposited on top of it.  So… because the sandstone is so much younger, but it was deposited right on top the schist, there must be a gap in the rock record between them … an unconformity.

And here is where we see evidence for even LONGER periods of time.  Overlying the sandstone?  Thousands and thousands of feet of more sedimentary rock.  And much of that sedimentary rock was marine… formed at sea level.  It is now over a mile above sea level.

And the schist itself?  The people who’ve studied it have determined that much of it was originally volcanic –which means that it originally formed at the Earth’s surface.  So… over geologic time, it must have been buried to the depths needed to turn it into a metamorphic rock BEFORE it was uplifted and exposed.

So… how old is Earth?  Some say 6 or 10,000 years… I think we’re looking at 10s of millions in this photo.  And if we consider the numerical ages for these rocks, 1.7 billion is the age of metamorphism of the schist –its original volcanic rock must have been older!


That’s actually the moon at the end of the crack in this rock…

granite and moon, Sierra Nevada, California.

A typical exposure of granite --coarse grained with an interlocking, random assortment of crystals. Click here to search for geology pictures by keyword.

And the rock is a pretty typical example of granodiorite… which is a lot like granite, except it has a little less silica.  See yesterday’s post about igneous rocks if you’re interested.

It turns out that most of the Sierra Nevada Range in California, including Mt. Whitney (the conterminous US’s highest peak) is made out of granodiorite.  And if you consider that most of the magma cooled and crystallized at a depth of 10km, and now resides about 4km ABOVE sea level, we’re looking at millions of years to accomplish this uplift.

Here’s Mt. Whitney at sunrise… It’s the peak just left-of center.  From this view, you can see that the rock of this part of the Sierra Nevada Range is all pretty much the same: granodiorite.

Mt. Whitney and Sierra Nevada, California at sunrise. Mt. Whitney's elevation is 14, 505' above sea level, the highest spot in the conterminous US. The rock in this photograph is almost entirely granodiorite.

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