Friday fold: twice-folded turbidites at Black Pond

Today’s Friday fold comes to us courtesy of Gary Fleming, botanist extraordinaire and brother of Tony Fleming, geological Jack of All Trades. Together, the Fleming brothers led a field trip for the Geological Society of Washington. While I was on that field trip, the topic of polyphase deformation came up, which led a couple of weeks later to Gary sending me this photograph. He took this photo in the Black Pond area, on the Virginia side of the Potomac River near the property of Madeira School:


That’s a set of twice-folded folds. The earlier generation of folds are quite tight enough that their limbs are parallel; we call this “isoclinal.” They display axial planes that run left-to-right across the photo. They are overprinted by a second generation of folds which are more open and broad. The second generation folds have axial planes which run top-to-bottom across the photo. Here’s an annotated copy showing the undulating form of the folds:


And here I’ve tacked on some color-coded axial plane traces: the first generation of folding (F1) is in yellow; the second generation (F2) is in blue:


The rocks in question are turbidites of the Mather Gorge Formation, folded up during the late-Ordovician episode of mountain building called the Taconian Orogeny. Relative to the orientation of this photograph, the F1 folds would have resulted from top-to-bottom compression, while the F2 folds would have resulted from a later episode of side-to-side compression.

It’s also worth noting the collection of small parasitic F2 folds in the schisty section at the top of the photo (greenish-gray, and partially obscured by mud).

Happy Friday! If your week has left you as contorted as these rocks, I hope you have a relaxing weekend…

Thanks to Gary Fleming for sharing this image and letting me publish it here.

Champlain thrust fault


Over the summer, I went up to Vermont to visit my friends the Clearys. Joe Cleary is a college friend and a talented luthier. He and his wife Tree and their children Jasper and Juniper have settled in Burlington, a lively town with a lot of cool stuff going on. Joe took time out one morning to show us a superb example of a thrust fault on the shore of Lake Champlain. It is on private property, but Joe got permission for us to hike there first. Our group that day consisted of Joe, Lily, and me, plus by a stroke of good luck, my pal Pete Berquist was in Burlington at the same time, with his friend Amy. The five us were Team Burlington for the day.

There are two rock units involved in the faulting at this location. Consider the first:


This is the Dunham Dolostone. It’s early Cambrian in age. It’s resistant to erosion, and stands up in cliffs above Lake Champlain. The distance from my ten little piggies down to the water is probably fifty feet. Below the Dunham Dolostone, you can find the Iberville shale. It is actually younger than the overlying dolostone. (We know this from unfaulted stratigraphy elsewhere in the region.) The Iberville shales are Middle Ordovician in age. They are relatively weak (‘incompetent’) rocks, and have been sheared out by the faulting. Here, Team Burlington demonstrates the sense of shear, by leaning over in the direction that foliation has rotated towards:


Looking in one direction along the base of the fault to show the differential weathering of the two units:


Flip it around 180°, and you see the same thing in the other direction:


Pete, Joe, and I crawled underneath the ominously overhanging dolostone to check out the detailed structure of the fault. Here’s Pete tickling the sheared out shales, looking for little sigmas…


The shales had nice veins of calcite running through them, and the high contrast of light and dark reveals some lovely folds, like this one:


Pete goes into professor mode, gesticulating and using the verb “shmoo” to describe the reaction of the shale to a gazillion tons of dolostone sliding over top of it:


Another nice fold (little tiny blue Swiss Army knife, 5.7 cm in length, for scale):


And another nice fold:


This fold is transitioning into a shear band:


Here’s my favorite part of the outcrop, a big fold with little parasitic folds all over it, showing opposite senses of shear on the opposite limbs of the big fold:


S-folds on the upper limb, Z-folds on the lower limb. Sweet, eh?

Here, a sort of S-C fabric has developed, with foliation tipped over the the left, and then near-horizontal shear bands running along through it:


Here’s something weird. Perhaps a reader can explain it. Here’s a shot of some of the veins, with the same 5.7 cm knife for scale:


Now we’ve zoomed in, and you can see some detail in the vein:


What are those lines? Is that more “S-C” fabric? I mean, it can’t be cross-bedding in a vein… but I’m having trouble visualizing what process of shearing the vein could yield such a delicate, even distribution of dark material amid the vein fill. What the heck is going on here?

Okay, now that you’ve twisted your brain up thinking about that, you can relax with a structure whose meaning is obvious. Some artistic and romantic previous visitor (not a member of Team Burlington) had arranged pebbles weathered from the two rock units into a bimodal icon of love:


Displacement along the Champlain Thrust is estimated at 30–50 miles (48–80 km). These dolostones started off near the New Hampshire border, then crossed Vermont, almost but not quite making it into the Empire State! The Champlain Thrust is the westernmost thrust fault that has been associated with the Taconian Orogeny, a late Ordovician episode of mountain building associated with the docking of an island arc with ancestral North America. Looking up at the fault trace:


A final glance at the thrust outcrop, looking north and showing the fault’s gently-inclined easterly dip:


Joe, thanks for taking the time to bring us out there!

Here, ptyggie ptyggie ptyggie!

Yesterday, I took my GMU structural geology class to the Billy Goat Trail, my favorite local spot for intriguing geology. Unlike last year, we managed our time well enough that we got to clamber around on the rocks downstream of the amphibolite contact. Here’s Sarah, Lara, Kristen, and Alan, negotiating a steep section:


Justin, Joe, Nik, Aaron, Jeremy, and Danny find a chunky amphibolite boudin in metagraywacke. Notice how Jeremy is gesturing about the orientation of the metagraywacke foliation wrapping around the boudin.


The thing that we found that really made me happy were these ptygmatic folds. Most of my readers will doubtless already be familiar with ptygmatic folding, but in case you’re new to this, check out this photo (ballpoint pen for scale):


Ptygmatic folding is “intestine-like” in appearance. It results where there is a particularly high viscosity contrast (viscosity is resistance to flow) between the folded layer and the surrounding matrix. The higher viscosity material makes broad lobes, while the lower viscosity material may be found in the pointy cusps between those lobes. If ptygmatic folding is well developed, the limbs become parallel to one another (isoclinal), and the visual similarity to guts is disconcerting. Here’s a smaller version, a few feet away from the first one:


I’m headed back to the Billy Goat Trail today to discuss the trail’s geology with a crew from Sigma Xi‘s D.C. chapter. I wonder what we will discover today?

Transect debrief 5: sedimentation continues

We just looked at the Chilhowee Group, a package of sediments that records the transition for the North American mid-Atlantic from Iapetan rifting through to passive margin sedimentation associated with the Sauk Sea transgression. Well, if we journey a bit further west, we see the sedimentary stack isn’t done telling its story. The saga continues through another two pulses of mountain building. Consider this “unfolded, unfaulted” east-west cross-section cartoon:


Part A of the image above shows the overall stratigraphic sequence for the Blue Ridge and the Valley & Ridge provinces in Virginia and West Virginia. You’ll notice that the small, detailed stratigraphic column I used to start the last two posts covers just the bottom 6 layers in this stack. Zoomed out to the bigger picture, we see ~40 layers overall. Lynn Fichter of James Madison University, one of the leaders of the Transect Trip, has published an excellent information-dense guide to the mid-Atlantic column. It’s a terrific reference for anyone looking to learn more about these rocks and the story they tell.

Part B of the image above shows the tectonic interpretation of these different packages of rock — some represent rifting, some represent passive margin sedimentation, some represent clastic influence from various orogenies occurring to the east (Taconian and Acadian).

The cartoon cross-section below, modified from an original by Steve Marshak in his excellent introductory textbook Earth: Portrait of a Planet, shows the tectonic evolution of the east coast over the past ~1 billion years of geologic time. It is reprinted here with Steve’s permission.


The story begins with the Grenville Orogeny, an episode of mountain building that completes the assembly of the Rodinian supercontinent. This is followed by Iapetan rifting, followed by three pulses of Appalachian mountain-building: the Taconian (“Taconic“) Orogeny, the Acadian Orogeny, and the culminating event of Pangean supercontinental assembly, the Alleghanian (“Alleghenian”) Orogeny. Finally, Pangea breaks up in the Mesozoic, an event also known as Atlantic rifting. Two complete Wilson Cycles are preserved by the Appalachian mountain belt!

The Valley & Ridge province received sediment courtesy of the Taconian and Acadian Orogenies, but wasn’t directly involved with the tectonic collision in any deformational way. Notice how west of both those orogenies in the Marshak diagram you see a fresh layer of sediment being deposited atop the North American craton.

During the field trip, I posted some iPhone photos of the sedimentary strata that accumulated in the Valley & Ridge during the mid-Paleozoic, shed off from the orogenic activity to the east. For example, the Brallier Formation’s turbidites record a time when sea was west and mountains were east. Or the Juniata Formation’s red beds speak of a time in the late Ordovician when an advancing clastic wedge had piled sediment up above sea level. This shot of some of those red beds preserves some beautiful depositional relationships from ~440 million year old river systems.

Let’s annotate that, shall we?


Even in the Ordovician, rivers did what they do today, spilling over their bansk and building up natural levees. Same as it ever was, people.

That “sediment only; no deformation” regime for the Valley & Ridge changed with the Alleghanian Orogeny. That’s when deformation propagated to the west, encompassing the flat-lying Valley & Ridge strata into a proper fold-&-thrust belt. Later, differential erosion of these folded and faulted layers would etch the landscape into a series of valleys and ridges… hence the province name. More on that deformation in the next post.

Transect debrief 4: transgression, passive margin

…So where were we? Ahh, yes: an orogeny, and then some rifting. What happened next to Virginia and West Virginia? Let’s consult the column…


After the rifting event opened up the Iapetus Ocean, seafloor spreading took place and tacked fresh oceanic crust onto the margin of the ancestral North American continent. As North America (“Laurentia”) moved away from other continental fragments (Congo craton, Amazonia craton), it got a little bit calmer ’round these parts. From the continent’s perspective, the spreading center moving further and further offshore.

This shift of the tectonic locus out to the middle of an ocean basin means that the edge of the ancestral North American continent could finally relax a bit. The magmatic intrusions became a distant memory, and the crust cooled, contracted a bit, and sank. This subsidence allowed seawater to lap up onto the edge of the continent, and with the seawater came sediments. Rivers draining the exposed North American continent brought sediments to the sea, and dumped them. We geologists call this “passive margin sedimentation,” and it results in relatively “mature” sediments: those that have been well-worked over, typically rich in quartz and well sorted and with more rounded component grains.

As time went by, the edge of the continent subsided more and more, and any given spot in the modern-day Blue Ridge transitioned from streams to beach to continental shelf. The sedimentary stack reflects this increasing distance from the shoreline: a transgressive sequence.

It starts at the bottom with Weverton Formation: conglomerates and sandstones (and as I discovered on the Transect Trip, siltstones too). Here’s a piece of the Weverton from a GSW trip several springs ago:

The Weverton is overlain by muddy deposits of the Harpers Formation, which can also include coarse sandy units, as I learned on the Transect Trip. Here’s a shot of the Harpers Formation at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, the type locality. This was taken five years ago, back when I had just gotten out of grad school, and spent a year teaching at George Mason University (pre-NOVA). [The student pictured is Steve Elmore, who just earned his master's from GMU, working with Bob Hazen. Congratulations, Steve!]


The Harpers is really important, because it contains some Olenellus trilobite fossils, which constrain its age to be Cambrian.

The Harpers is overlain by another sandstone: a clean, pure quartz package named the Antietam Formation. For me, the Antietam is a favorite local rock, because it is studded with Cambrian-aged Skolithos trace fossils. On the trip, I used the iPhone to upload a few photos of these, but here’s a higher-resolution image to savor:

You’re looking at the bedding plane of the Antietam in the above image, with your sight-line parallel to the paleo-vertical orientation of the tubes. Wow. Beyond all reason or deeper interest, I just love Skolithos tubes. I look at this outcrop, and I wonder: is this a palimpsest? or a small wormy Manhattan? In other words: was this multitude of burrows generated by a small population that dug in the same area over a long period of time, or by a huge population living cheek-to-jowl over a relatively brief moment?

Regardless, the sand-then-mud-then-sand-again picture painted by the succession of Weverton-Harpers-Antietam isn’t a “textbook” transgressive sequence, but it might make more sense if you consider the Antietam sands as barrier island deposits, with the Harpers being deposited in a Pamlico-Sound-type setting.

Finally, the transgression is complete when we get to the top of the Blue Ridge sequence and see the Tomstown Formation, a carbonate unit:


The Tomstown tells of a time when sea level had gotten so high locally that the shoreline was way, way, way far away. There were no clastic sediments making it out to this location, and all that was available to precipitate were the ions dissolved in the seawater. No sand, no pebbles, no mud: only carbonate.

The sequence of sedimentary strata continues, but to follow its succession upwards, you’ll have to travel across the Blue Ridge Thrust Fault to the west, into the Valley & Ridge province. More on that in the next post. For the moment, let me share a cartoon sequence of images by Tom Gathright (1976), showing the overall stratigraphic evolution of the Blue Ridge province*:

*Note that Gathright used the outmoded names “Hampton” instead of Harpers, and “Erwin” instead of Antietam. Please forgive him and move on.

That last panel, showing Alleghanian deformation, is something we will attack in a future post. For now, I’m satisfied to have finally climbed to the top of the Blue Ridge stratigraphic stack.


Gathright, Thomas M., 1976. Geology of the Shenandoah National Park, Virginia. Virginia Division of Mineral Resources Bulletin 86, Charlottesville, VA. [buy it from SNPA Bookstore]

Transect Trip 21: hanging wall anticline

Hoo-hoo! An anticline in the hanging wall of a thrust fault in the Valley & Ridge. This is the redbeds of the latest-Ordovician Juniata Formation. Lynn Fichter for scale.

Transect Trip 20: chlorite slickensides

This is a nice sample of slicks. On the other side, burrows! I like that: a primary structure on one face, a secondary structure on the opposite side.


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