Deducing my first anticline

When I was done with my sophomore year at William & Mary, I embarked on a time-honored tradition among W&M geology majors: the Geology 310 Colorado Plateau field course. Jess alluded to this same course in her Magma Cum Laude contribution to this month’s Accretionary Wedge geology blog “carnival,” too.

My version of Geology 310 was led by the legendary Gerald Johnson (a.k.a. “Dr J”), a dynamic and enthusiastic educator who seemed particularly at home in the field. One day, he had us out in Utah (I think) somewhere, and pulled over to the side of the road so we could examine some tilted sandstone layers. We took a strike and dip reading, and plotted it on a map.


Then we descended into a narrow valley, where Dr. J did some “geology at 60 miles per hour,” pointing out shale outcrops in a few places in the valley. Then we drove up the opposite side. We pulled over again. Same sandstone strata: we again took a strike and a dip on the beds. The data was then recorded on our maps with a strike and dip symbol, a broad, squat “T” shape, where the upper bar of the “T” is parallel to the strike of the bedding, and the vertical prong of the “T” is pointing in the dip direction.


“Well,” Dr. J asked us, “What’s going on here?”

We were all silent, trying to puzzle it out. What’s the deal? What is he fishing for? Seconds ticked by, and no one had the right answer. We started to sweat… “Um, the sandstone beds are dipping to the west on the ridge west of the valley,” someone ventured, “and they are dipping to the east on the ridge east of the valley?”

“Yes, but what does that mean?” he replied. Silence…

Eventually, he relented, and spelled it out for us. Imagine this situation from the sides, he suggested, gesticulating the layers dipping off in opposite directions. “These are the same layers, so they were once laterally continuous…” He mimed a cross-sectional perspective:


How could we connect these disparately oriented strata together?


Bam! It hit me: I got the idea of an anticline at that point — the idea that a structure like an anticline could be so large that I couldn’t actually see it from my earthbound human-sized perspective, and I could only infer it from detailed measurements of the rock structures. It was a revelation to me: this valley and its surrounding ridges were part of a massive fold. The anticline must have breached in the middle, with the shale eroding away faster than the sandstone, producing a valley flanked by two ridges.

I’m grateful to Dr. J for putting us through all stages of this exercise: collecting the incremental pieces of data, being forced to think about it in an attempt to come up with an interpretation, and then finally giving us the proper interpretation, once it had become obvious we weren’t going to get it on our own. This last bit is particularly important to me as an educator: sometimes it’s okay to spell it out for students, particularly if it’s their first time walking down a particular path. By revealing the “answer,” Dr. J guided my thinking from data to big picture structure to geomorphological interpretation in a way that I can only describe as “opening up a new pathway” in my mind. Once he showed the way to think about this sort of thing, it was suddenly very easy for me to visualize this sort of complicated four-dimensional story. Once the pathway was there, it was almost effortless to let my thoughts flow along that pathway. Weird how one’s perspective can change in a moment, and how that influences everything that comes after.

For me, this exercise and ensuing discussion constituted an important moment in developing my ability to think like a geologist. I don’t think my brain will ever be the same.

Geology of Massanutten Mountain, Virginia

Here’s a new video from Greg Willis, the same guy who brought us a fine video on Piedmont geology. In this new opus (20 minutes), Greg details the geology of the Massanutten Synclinorium (Shenandoah Valley, Massanutten Mountain, and Fort Valley) in western Virginia. WordPress isn’t letting me embed it here, but you should go and check it out!

Volcanic features of the Rockies trip

This weekend, I wanted to share some of the best work from this year’s Rockies field course students. Let’s start with a nice video by Marcelo Arispe:

I thought this was a really nice job making a video using still images and a voiceover. The only thing I would change would be in the Gallatin Range basalt column discussion: cooling lava loses volume, not mass. Nice work, Marcelo!

River landscape evolution

I’ve developed a little cartoon diagram to show four stages of river landscape evolution. I use this image in Physical Geology when discussing how running water erodes the land. Check it out:

river evolution table

There are two rows, and four columns. The columns are the four stages of river landscape evolution: youth, maturity, old age, and rejuvenation. The rows offer different perspectives on the landscape: the upper row is a map view, and the lower row is a cross-sectional view.

The first two columns are shown here in more detail:

river evolution table1

When they are young, rivers ideally start out relatively straight in map view, entrenched in V-shaped valleys. You’ll also find plenty of waterfalls and rapids at this “Youth” stage. As time goes by, the river erodes downward to base level, and loses the gravitational impetus to incise any deeper. The river now begins to meander side to side, and as it does so, enlarges the size of its valley by lateral erosion at cut banks. It is “Mature.” As time goes by, the valley walls get further and further apart. …Then what?

river evolution table2

If enough time goes by, the river can enlarge the size of its valley so much that you can’t really tell it’s a valley any more. At this stage, meandering can get pronounced enough to fold back on itself and create oxbow lakes (visible in the map view of the “Old Age” stage). The story could conceivably end here. However, if base level were to drop anew, the river will begin to incise again, producing a valley profile (cross-section) that looks pretty much identical to the “Youth” stage. It has been made young again, or “Rejuvenated.” In map view, however, you can see from the meandering shape of the re-incised valley that the river must once have been at the “Old Age” stage. There are no more oxbow lakes in the “Rejuvenated” stage, as the river’s energy is going into downcutting rather than lateral meandering.

My experience is that this nice neat sequence works as a conceptual model for Physical Geology students. Nature, of course, is more complicated, but this serves me well as a foundational framework. What do you think? Is this scheme appropriate for an introductory audience, or is it too simple?


World! …I have an announcement!

Three of my structural geology students from this past semester are now geoblogging… can’t say I had anything to do with that, but there it is.

They are:

Joe Maloney at Fossiliferous Weekly

Aaron Barth at Got The Time


“AlanP” at Not Necessarily Geology

Please check them out, and give them positive reinforcement. These are three bright young men with strong geological careers ahead of them.

Butter Buster animation

A million years ago, I posted about my inaugural attempt to use the Butter Buster to illustrate shear zone deformation to my structural geology students.

Today, using the UnFREEz program to make an animated GIF (Thanks, Lockwood!), I give you the Butter Buster animation:

“Geology of Skyline Drive” w/JMU

I mentioned going out in the field last Thursday with Liz Johnson‘s “Geology of Skyline Drive” lab course at James Madison University.

We started the trip south of Elkton, Virginia, at an exposure where Liz had the students collect hand samples and sketch their key features. Here’s one that I picked up:


Regular readers will recognize those little circular thingies as Skolithos trace fossils, which are soda-straw-like in the third dimension. Rotate the sample by 90°, and you can see the tubes descending through the quartz sandstone:


This is the Antietam Formation, a distinctive quartz sandstone / quartzite in the Blue Ridge geologic province. But at this location, on the floor of the Page Valley and butted up against the Blue Ridge itself, we see something else in the Antietam:


Parts of this outcrop are pervasively shattered: a variety of sized clasts of Antietam quartzite are loosely held together in porcupine-like arrays of fault breccia. Turns out that this is the structural signature of a major discontinuity in the Earth’s crust: the Blue Ridge Thrust Fault. This is the fault that divides the Valley & Ridge province on the west from the Blue Ridge province on the east. And here, thanks to a roadcut on Route 340, we can put our hand on the trace of that major fault. Here’s another piece of the fault breccia:


After grokking on the tectonic significance of this fault surface, we drove up into Shenandoah National Park, to check out some outcrops along Skyline Drive itself, but it was really foggy. Here’s a typical look at the team in the intra-cloud conditions atop the Blue Ridge:


We checked out primary sedimentary structures in the Weverton Formation at Doyles River Overlook (milepost 81.9), like these graded beds (paleo-up towards the bottom of the photo)…


…and these cross-beds. You can see that it was raining on us at this point: hence the partly-wet outcrop and glossy reflection at right:


Cutting through this outcrop was a neat little shear zone where a muddy layer had been sheared out into a wavy/lenticular phyllonite, with a distinctive S-C fabric visible in three dimensions:


Finally, we went to the Blackrock Trail, which leads up to a big boulder field of quartzite described as Hampton (Harpers) Formation. In some places, exquisite cross-bedding was visible, as here (pen for scale):


Here’s a neat outcrop, where you can see the tangential cross beds’ relationship to the main bed boundary below them:


…And then if you spin around to the right, you can see this bedform (with internal cross-bedding) in the third dimension. I’ve laid the pen down parallel to the advancing front of this big ripple:


That last photo also shows the continuing influence of the fog.

Thanks much to Liz for letting me tag along on this outing! It was a great opportunity for me to observe another instructor leading a field trip, and also to discover some new outcrops in the southernmost third of the park.


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