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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).

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Palouse Falls in eastern Washington drops more than 180 feet over lava flows of the Grande Ronde and Wanapum members of the Columbia River Basalt Group.

You might also notice in the photo above that the waterfall is actually pretty small compared to its amphitheatre. That’s because Palouse Falls is part of another flood story –of the Ice Age Floods, described in rich detail on the Ice Age Floods Institute website. Basically, some 40 or 50 gigantic floods coursed through the area towards the end of the Ice Age, between about 15-18,000 years ago. and among other things, carved this canyon. Lobes of the continental ice sheet repeatedly dammed the Clark Fork River in northern Montana and then failed, repeatedly, after forming Glacial Lake Missoula. Imagine the flow volume in the above photo multiplied more than 100,000 times!

Mount Rainier and the Cascade Volcanoes
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At 14,410 feet above sea level, Mount Rainier is the highest volcano in the Cascade Range –and one of the highest spots in the conterminous United States. The volcano itself consists mostly of andesite flows that date back nearly a half million years.

Beneath those lava flows are older rocks that speak to a history of volcanic activity reaching back 70 times that of Rainier’s oldest lavas –to about 35 million years ago. At Christine Falls, you can inspect granitic rock of the Tatoosh Pluton, which is a crystallized magma chamber that formed beneath some early Cascade volcanoes. It was probably active at different times between 26-14 million years ago. At Narada Falls, you can see where Rainier andesite actually flowed over the top of the granite–which tells us that the granite was exposed at the surface 40,000 years ago when that flow erupted. Both these waterfalls are right along the road that winds its way from Longmire up towards Paradise Meadows.

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Christine Falls (left) cuts through granitic rock of Tatoosh Pluton; Narada Falls (right) flows over Rainier Andesite that itself flowed over Tatoosh granodiorite, exposed on the rocky hillside.

If you go to the south entrance of the national park, you can walk a quarter mile from the highway to Silver Falls and exposures of Rainier’s oldest rocks. The Ohanapecosh Formation, made mostly of tuffs and re-deposited volcanic particles, formed by explosive volcanic activity that stretches back 35 million years. The Ohanapecosh Formation forms cliffs throughout much of the national park –and shows up northward as far as Interstate 90.

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Silver Falls in Mount Rainier National Park, spills over outcrops of Ohanapecosh Formation, the park’s oldest rock.

Finding the oldest volcanic rock in the Cascade Volcanoes is important because this incredibly active volcanic chain is fueled by magma generated through the sinking of oceanic lithosphere at the Cascadia subduction zone –and the oldest rocks allow us to estimate when this process started. They get even older at Snoqualmie Falls, just north of I-90. There, rocks of the Mount Persis Volcanics reach ages of 38 million years. Most geologists agree that for Washington, these rocks mark the first volcanic activity after the formation of the Cascadia subduction zone.

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Snoqualmie Falls drops more than 250′ into a gorge of Mt. Persis Volcanics –rocks that mark the onset of volcanic activity related to today’s Cascadia subduction zone.


Early Volcanic Roots and Continental Accretion

Here it gets a little complicated, because subduction also drove much of Washington’s geologic history before the Cascade volcanoes started to form. This older subduction also formed volcanic chains and through the process of continental accretion, caused Washington to grow westward.

Intro-8. Accretion series-CS4This diagram, modified from my book Roadside Geology of Oregon, illustrates the process of accretion. Basically, some element of the subducting seafloor is unable to fully sink beneath the continent, probably because it’s topographically high– such as with a series of seamounts. This material jams up the subduction zone and causes the sinking to stop temporarily. Eventually, a new subduction zone forms farther offshore and the thing that jammed up the zone in the first place gets added, or accreted, to the edge of the continent. In Washington and Oregon, the younger Cascadia subduction zone is the one that formed the Cascade Volcanoes and the stuff that jammed the zone was a huge fragment of oceanic lithosphere called “Siletzia”. Siletzia now makes up the bottom of Washington and Oregon’s Coast Range. The older subduction zone that got jammed up is the one that’s responsible for the rocks described below.

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Gorge Creek cuts a slot through orthogneiss (inset) of the Skagit Gneiss Complex along State Highway 20 in Washington’s North Cascades.

Gorge Falls along State Highway 20 in the North Cascades cuts this narrow slot through rocks formed because of that older subduction zone. These rocks started as the granitic roots to volcanoes, much in the same way as the Tatoosh Pluton formed the roots to some Cascade volcanoes. Those roots then got squeezed and reheated to make a metamorphic rock called gneiss. In some places it even partially re-melted.

The inset gives a close-up view of the rock. It’s called “orthogneiss” because it started out as an igneous rock. It forms a big part of the Skagit Gneiss Complex, which makes up the core of the North Cascades.

It’s hard to say if the Skagit Gneiss Complex was actually added to the edge of North America from somewhere else, but a lot of other rocks in Washington were–and those episodes of accretion are what caused much of the metamorphism in the North Cascades.

 

For accreted rock, here’s probably my favorite waterfall: Nooksack Falls, along State Highway 542 between Bellingham and the Mt. Baker ski area. It’s made of conglomerate of the Nooksack Group, which accumulated in a submarine fan somewhere off the coast of North America during the Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods, maybe 140 million years ago.

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Nooksack Falls in the North Cascades. the horizontal lines across the falls mark traces of bedding in the rock that’s inclined directly upstream.

Ancient North America

If you go eastward towards Spokane, you eventually find yourself on the North America that existed before all this accretion. Of course, much of the area is now covered by the Columbia River Basalt, but in the northeast corner of the state, you encounter Paleozoic sedimentary rocks that formed along the continental margin of that older continent. Sweet Creek Falls is one place to see these rocks, right off State Highway 31. There, the beautiful stream spills over ledges of Ledbetter Slate, deposited as shale during the Ordovician Period. In the foreground are cobbles of Addy Quartzite, formed as beach-deposited sandstone in the Cambrian.

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Sweet Creek Falls spills over Ledbetter Slate. Cobbles of Addy Quartzite lie in the foreground.

 

Washington’s Geologic Timeline

The timeline below shows Washington’s main geologic events –and you can see where these 9 waterfalls fit. The red text and red-colored bars represent geologic events represented by individual waterfalls, shown in blue.  Kind of amazing… these 9 waterfalls show many of Washington’s most important elements: the Cascade Volcanoes, the Columbia River Basalt Group, continental accretion, and the old continental margin.

And they’re nice places to hang out!

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Timeline of Washington’s geology. Red text signifies events described in this post and represented by various waterfalls (in blue).

 


For more geology photos, please check out my website–it contains a searchable database of more than 2000 geology photos for free download.

Roadside Geology of Washington should be out and available in August, 2017.

Thanks for reading!

 

 

 

 

 

Just scratching the surface. A geologic cross-section of Oregon speaks to unimaginable events.

The cross-section below runs from the Cascadia subduction zone across Oregon and into eastern Idaho.  It outlines Oregon’s geologic history, beginning with accretion of terranes, intrusion of granitic “stitching plutons”, and deposition of first North American-derived sedimentary rocks, and ending with High Cascades Volcanic activity and glaciation.

Schematic geologic cross-section across Oregon, from the Cascadia Subduction zone into western Idaho.

Schematic geologic cross-section across Oregon, from the Cascadia Subduction zone into western Idaho.

The cross-section barely scratches the surface of things. Moreover, it boils everything down to a list, which is kind of sterile. But the cross-section also provides a platform for your imagination because each one of these events really happened and reflects an entirely different set of landscapes than what we see today.

Think of the CRBG about 15 million years ago. The basalt flows completely covered the landscape of northern Oregon and southern Washington. Or the Clarno volcanoes –only a part of the green layer called “Clarno/John Day”. They were stratovolcanoes in central Oregon –when the climate was tropical! Or try to wrap your mind around the accreted terranes, some of which, like the Wallowa Terrane, contain fossils from the western Pacific.

To emphasize this point, here’s Crater Lake. Crater Lake formed because Mt. Mazama, one of the Cascades’ stratovolcanoes, erupted about 7700 years ago in an eruption so large and violent that it collapsed in on itself to form a caldera. It’s now a national park, with a whole landscape of its own. And if you visit Crater Lake, you’ll see evidence that Mt. Mazama had its own history –which dates back more than 400,000 years. But Crater Lake and Mt. Mazama make up just a tiny part of the Cascades, which are represented on this diagram by just this tiny area that’s shaped like a mountain.

Crater Lake occupies the caldera of Mt. Mazama, which erupted catastrophically some 7700 years ago.

Crater Lake occupies the caldera of Mt. Mazama, which erupted catastrophically some 7700 years ago.

So the cross-section is kind of sterile and just scratches the surface. But what makes geology so incredible is that we’re always learning new things and digging deeper –and we know we’re just scratching the surface –that there will always —always— be something  to learn.


click here and type “Oregon” into the search for photos of Oregon Geology.
click here for information about the new Roadside Geology of Oregon book.

Crater Lake caldera, Oregon –some things happen quickly!

Crater Lake never ceases to amaze me.  It’s huge –some 6 miles (10 km) across, deep –some 1700 feet deep in parts –the deepest lake in the United States and 7th deepest on the planet– incredibly clear, and really really blue.  And for volcano buffs, one of the best places ever!

Crater Lake as seen from The Watchman.  Wizard Island, which formed after the caldera collapse, occupies the center of the photo.

Crater Lake as seen from The Watchman. Wizard Island, which formed after the caldera collapse, occupies the center of the photo.

Crater Lake is a caldera, formed when ancient Mt. Mazama erupted so catastrophically that it emptied its magma chamber sufficiently for the overlying part of the mountain to collapse downward into the empty space.  That was about 7700 years ago.  Soon afterwards, Wizard Island formed, along with some other volcanic features that are now hidden beneath the lake–and then over the years, the lake filled to its present depth.  It’s unlikely to rise any higher because there is a permeable zone of rock at lake level that acts as a drain.

Here’s one of the coolest things about the cataclysmic eruption: Not only was it really big, but it happened really fast.  We know it was big because we can see pumice, exploded out of the volcano, blanketing the landscape for 100s of square miles to the north of the volcano –and we can see the caldera.  We can tell it happened quickly because the base of the pumice is welded onto a rhyolite flow that erupted at the beginning stages of the collapse; the rhyolite was still HOT when the pumice landed on it!  You can see the welded pumice on top the Cleetwood Flow along the road at Cleetwood Cove.

pumice welded onto top of Cleetwood rhyolite flow at Cleetwood Cove.  Note how the base of the pumice is red from oxidation --and forms a ledge because it's so hard.

pumice welded onto top of Cleetwood rhyolite flow at Cleetwood Cove. Note how the base of the pumice is red from oxidation –and forms a ledge because it’s so hard.  Pumice blankets the landscape all around Crater Lake.

Crater Lake though, is so much more than a caldera –it’s the exposed inside of a big stratovolcano!  Where else can you see, exposed in beautiful natural cross-sections, lava flow after lava flow, each of which erupted long before the caldera collapse and built the original volcano? Within the caldera itself, these flows go back 400,000 years–the oldest ones being those that make up Phantom Ship –the cool little island (some 50′ tall) in Crater Lake’s southeast corner.

Phantom Ship, in Crater Lake's southeast corner, is made of the caldera's oldest known rock, at 400,000 years old.

Phantom Ship, in Crater Lake’s southeast corner, is made of the caldera’s oldest known rock, at 400,000 years old.

I can’t resist.  The caldera formed about 7700 years ago, incredibly recent in Earth history–incredibly recent in just the history of Mt. Mazama!  To a young earth creationist though, that’s 1700 years before Earth formed.  Now THAT’S amazing!


Click here if you want to see a Geologic map of Crater Lake.
Or… for more pictures of Crater Lake, type its name into the Geology Search Engine.  Or… check out the new Roadside Geology of Oregon book!

young and old, close and far

Here’s a photo of the Three Sisters Volcanoes in Oregon –looking northward.  The oldest volcano, North Sister, erupted more than 100,000 years ago and so is considered extinct.  Because no lava has erupted there in so long, erosion has cut deeply into the volcano.  By contrast, South Sister, the closest volcano on the left, most recently erupted only 2000 years ago and is much less eroded.

And then there are the stars –you can see the Big Dipper on the right side of the photo.  The closest star in the Big Dipper is some 68 light years away.

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You can see more photos of Oregon by typing the name “Oregon” into the search function on my website at http://www.marlimillerphoto.com/searchstart.html

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