Birthing a litter of drumlins Quite appropriately, Glacial Till won the new the latest edition of “Where on (Google) Earth?”, hosted here yesterday. The location I picked is the subject of a new paper by Mark Johnson and colleagues appears in the current issue of Geology (October 2010). It shows a place in Iceland where a piedmont-style outlet glacier called Múlajökull is pooching out to the southeast from the Hofsjökull ice cap. Here’s a more zoomed-out view of the glacier’s terminus:


Here, I’ve jacked the contrast up a bit, so you can see what’s so cool about this location — note the radial array of elliptical meltwater lakes…


The other outlet glacier, seen just to the west, is Nauthagajökull. With this context established, we can take a look at Figure 1 from the Johnson, et al. (2010) paper:


The red ellipses are between the lakes I pointed out earlier. They are drumlins, elliptical hills of glacial till. Drumlins are examples of the sub-set of glacial geomorphology which includes features made by deposition of glacial sediment (till). They are taller at the upstream end, and taper out downstream, a shape something like an “upside-down spoon.” Long-term readers will recall the time that I shared the experience of visiting some drumlins in New York, where I learned that “spoon” analogy from Paul Tomascak.

There are a lot of drumlins left over from the Pleistocene glaciation, but we don’t totally understand how they form. That’s what’s so exciting about the recession of Múlajökull: it’s exposing the world’s only known active drumlin field for geologic scrutiny. Johnson, et al., have documented 50 separate drumlins emerging from beneath the ice. Their field works has yielded some new observations that may shed light on how these distinctive landforms develop.

First off, they note that Múlajökull is a “surge-type” outlet glacier, which means that it pulses forward rapidly (4 times in the past 60 years), which isn’t the case for other glaciers, like neighbor Nauthagajökull. See the comparison in Figure 1d — where Nauthagajökull is relatively smoothly retreating, but Múlajökull has fits and starts. This may be important: Nauthagajökull hasn’t produced any drumlins.

Second, they documented various aspects of the drumlins at Múlajökull. They have an aerial aspect ratio of about 3.0, which is similar to what we see in the drumlin zones of New York and other Pleistocene drumlin fields. So that makes uniformitarians happy — maybe the dynamics of Múlajökull are analogous to the Laurentide ice sheet! Another, more detailed study, was made of the internal structure and stratigraphy of the drumlins, as exposed in channels carved into the drumlin laterally by flowing meltwater. The guts of the drumlin show multiple till units, the most recent of which truncates the ones below it in a subtle but discernible angular unconformity.The uppermost till can be traced to the end-moraine produced by the most recent (1992) surge of the glacier, but not beyond it.

They also note the presence of orange-colored water-escape structures, cutting across the till units and filled with fine sediment, and a pebble fabric which is parallel to the drumlin’s long axis (and ice-flow direction).

A final class of data is gained by taking a look at what the glacier’s snout looked like before it revealed its internal drumlins. Here’s Figure 5 from the new paper, which overlays the traced drumlin boundaries from Figure 1 on an air photo from 1995, a time after the glacier surged forward in 1992, but before the most recent recession of the terminus that revealed the drumlins:


The authors note that the crevasse pattern on the 1995 glacier is clearly related to the location of the drumlins that have recently emerged. A V-shaped pattern of crevasses may be seen immediately upstream from many of the drumlins’ positions.

After the 1992 surge, the glacial ice at the terminus of Múlajökull has been essentially stagnant: there are no recessional moraines between the 1992 surge end-moraine and the current ice front. Without moving ice, the authors find it difficult to imagine how drumlins could be formed. They infer that the drumlins formed during the surging stage of the glacier’s movement. The erosional basal contact of the upper till unit seen inside the drumlins suggests that erosion (as well as deposition) is an important part of the processes which form drumlins. Stress differences under and between crevasses cause slight differences in the rates of erosion vs. deposition the glacier bed. More till builds up beneath crevasses, less till accumulates between them. Time goes by, the glacier surges, and a big batch of new till gets added to the top of the drumlins. Amplifying feedback enlarges the drumlins with each successive surge, mainly on the upstream end and the sides of the drumlin. The authors interpret the drumlin’s internal stratigraphy of multiple till units as the record of multiple surges.

The authors of the new paper conclude by examining the two principal models for drumlin formation: a subglacial bed-deformation model from Boulton (1987), and a meltwater model proposed by Shaw (2002). They point out the truncated stratigraphy they observed inside the Múlajökull drumlins as evidence for the Boulton model, and a lack of sufficient meltwater to support the Shaw hypothesis.

Right now, Múlajökull is our only functional modern analogue for drumlin formation in the Pleistocene, but others may soon emerge. The authors also predict that as glacial recession continues to play out all over the world, we may someday observe other active drumlin fields, and gain further insights into what’s happening beneath continental glaciers.


Boulton, G.S. (1987). A theory of drumlin formation by subglacial sediment deformation, in Menzies, J., and Rose, J., eds. Drumlin symposium: Rotterdam, Balkema, p. 25-80.

Johnson, M., Schomacker, A., Benediktsson, I., Geiger, A., Ferguson, A., & Ingolfsson, O. (2010). Active drumlin field revealed at the margin of Mulajokull, Iceland: A surge-type glacier Geology, 38 (10), 943-946 DOI: 10.1130/G31371.1

Shaw, J. (2002). The meltwater hypothesis for subglacial bedforms. Quaternatary Interational, v. 90, p. 5-22. DOI: 10.1016/S1040-6182(01)00089-1.

Friday fold: Siccar Point, Scotland

As with last week, I’m going to show you someone else’s fold today. This one should have strong resonance with most geologists, because it’s a fold in the tilted (and contorted) older strata exposed below the famous unconformity at Siccar Point, Scotland:


I found this image on the British Geological Survey’s online repository of images, which are available for public use with attribution. I found out about the BGS photo repository via a post on

The photo was taken by T.S. Bain in 1979. Rock hammer (lower left) for scale.

The specific rock type here is shale, and their age is Silurian. Note the thinning of the limbs of the fold, and the relatively thick hinge area.

Happy Friday – may your workday rapidly thin (like the limbs of this “similar” fold), and your weekend be as thick as this fold hinge!

“Those aren’t pillows!”

In the 1987 comedy Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, John Candy and Steve Martin have a funny experience. It involves a cozy hotel room (one bed only) and the two travelers are huddled up for warmth. As he wakes up, John Candy thinks he is warming his hand “between two pillows.” At hearing this, Steve Martin’s eyes pop wide open, and he yells, “Those aren’t pillows!”

They jump up, totally discombobulated. An awkward moment follows.

Well, it’s not quite as awkward, but I had a similar “those aren’t pillows” moment recently. I was out in Shenandoah National Park with my GMU structural geology students, and we stopped off at the Little Stony Man parking area (milepost 39.1 on Skyline Drive). Here’s a figure showing the area in question, from Lukert & Mitra (1986):

You’ll note in the detail map at the right that it shows the nonconformable contact that separates the basement complex (here, the “Pedlar” Formation) from the overlying metabasalts of the Catoctin Formation.You’ll also note that it says “PILLOWS” with an arrow pointing at a specific spot on the trail. The word refers to basaltic pillows, which are breadloaf-shaped primary volcanic structures that form when lava erupts underwater. They are typically the size of a bedroom pillow (especially overstuffed pillows). Here’s some video of pillows erupting.

Pillows have been reported elsewhere in the Catoctin (e.g., near Lynchburg, according to Spencer, Bowring, and Bell, 1989), but this is the only location that I’m aware of where they have been reported in northern Virginia. The implications are not all that tremendous: just that a portion of the Catoctin erupted subaqueously, but it would be a neat thing to show students, especially seeing how close the outcrop is to safe parking.

Well, I’ve been to this area a half-dozen times, and I’ve never been able to find those damn pillows. It’s frustrated me, but I had an additional impetus this time around: I ran into Jodie Hayob, the petrology professor from Mary Washington University, who was out there with her students for the day. First thing we said to one another? You guessed it: “Did you find the pillows?”

While the students ate their lunches, I went off downhill (to the west), exploring and looking for these confounded pillows. Pretty soon, I found something that looked vaguely pillowy, at least in terms of have a well-defined “crust” with a dark interior (click through that link for a fine Canadian pillow, courtesy of Ron Schott). Prepare yourself for a lot of photos today… Here’s what I saw:


A few meters further downhill, I found another outcrop of the same stuff, this one veiled in a thin layer of algae (ahh, the joys of east coast geology!):


Little double-ridges which varied in parallel, defining small chunks of rock. Could these be the fabled pillows? But they’re …so small! They’re almost pincushions! I know they say size doesn’t matter, but it’s hard for me to picture a volume of lava this small hitting water and “inflating” to such a puny volume with a nice quenched glassy rind, but then having the interior to stay hot enough to crystallize into basalt. Hmmm. Starting to think something’s fishy with this subaqueous tale…

I then found a nice big cliff, 10 meters high and 20 meters wide, which was made of almost nothing but these structures. Here’s some of them highlighted by the sun (the boundary ridges weather out in high relief), despite being obscured beneath several layers of lichen:



A relatively clean, but relatively unweathered sample:


Aha, now that’s better:


The next two show more of a “classic” Catoctin coloring: chlorite green when fresh, with buff weathered surfaces on the outside:


Zooming in on one small, skinny purported “pillow”:


I climbed back up and coerced some students into joining me to check these weird things out, and they clambered down. Danny W. found a nice chunk of float which showed one of the “pillows” in three dimensions. Check it out at the top of this sample:


Three-dimensional extension courtesy of Photoshop; red line shows the long axis of this oblate ~ellipsoid plunging towards the camera. (Lara laughs in the background…)


Okay; two more… Check out how angular the boundaries of these “pillows” are:


Seeing this one really made me think: No way; “those aren’t pillows!“…


…Seeing that angular “break” on the left led me to realize that not only are these things too small* to be pillows, they also don’t have the right shape. Instead of being “pillowy,” (i.e., round) they are very angular, defined by edges that are aligned in a common direction and continue from one to the next.

* Where “too small” is defined as “smaller than anything Callan has seen before.”

I sketched in some of these planar edges:


To me, it looks like what’s happening here is that original homogeneous rock of the Catoctin Formation fractured, and then fluids flowed along those fractures, altering the rock that the fluids came into direct contact with. This produced the “double ridge” of buff-colored rock (on either side of the fracture), with the less-altered greenstone interiors being beyond the reach of these altering fluids. The intersection of the various joints and their subsequent boundary-defining alteration would look something like this example (from the online structure photo collection of Ben van der Pluijm): definitely click through to check it out.

In other words, I interpret these structures to be secondary, not primary. The end result is something that looks a lot like “boxwork” (again, please click through to get a sense of what I’m suggesting here): a phenomenon that occurs when limestone fractures, more resistant mineral deposits are precipitated in those fractures, and then the limestone blocks are dissolved away, leaving behind the “fractures” as planar ridges separating little “boxes” from one another.

Here’s two photos of boxwork, one whole-sample, one zoomed-in. This sample is in the USGS library in Reston, Virginia, and both photos were taken at my request by Bill Burton of the Survey. (Thanks Bill!)


At Little Stony Man, of course, the greenstone hasn’t “dissolved” away, but it does appear to be weathering more rapidly than the resistant buff-colored edges to these blocks, producing a distinctly boxwork-like effect.

Let’s look back at some of my field photos again, this time with the pillow boundaries highlighted in red…





(…I definitely could have hit a few more boundaries on that last one; forgive me for being haphazard and slapdash…)


This exercise convinced me that these things are not pillows, but some sort of fluid-rock interaction effect that took place on a complex fracture network. There’s no reason for the sharp edges of two adjacent pillows to be perfectly parallel and aligned.And it strains credulity to imagine ultra-tiny pillows in the first place (the size of my fingernail? Come on!).

I’ve e-mailed one of the authors of the original paper claiming pillows in this area with a link to my photos asking if these things are what he and his co-author were referring to, but I haven’t heard back anything. (I’ll update this post if he responds.) I might be totally off base here, but I can see how someone could make the claim that these were pillows. It’s just not a claim that convinces me, based on these outcrops.

What do you think? Do these look like any pillows you’ve ever seen?



M.L. Lukert and G. Mitra (1986). “Extrusional environments of part of the Catoctin Formation.” Trip #45 in Geological Society of America Centennial Field Guide – Southeastern Section, pp.207-208.

E.W. Spencer, C. Bowring, and J.D. Bell (1989). “Pillow lavas in the Catoctin Formation of Central Virginia.” in Contributions to Virginia geology, volume VI. Virginia Division of Mineral Resources publication 88, pp. 83-91.

3,2,1, Contact!

On my structure field trip just over a week ago, we found the contact between the Mesoproterozoic-aged Blue Ridge basement complex and the overlying Neoproterozoic Catoctin flood basalts (now metamorphosed to greenstone). This nonconformity can be found just west of the Appalachian Trail at the Little Stony Man parking area in Shenandoah National Park. Here’s four photos, with my left index finger for scale, in raw and annotated versions:



It’s not as glaringly obvious as some other unconformities profiled here, but it’s an important horizon in understanding the geologic history of the mid-Atlantic region.



In places, small inclusions of the basement complex may be found inside the base of the Catoctin Formation, a nice example of the principle of relative dating by inclusions. The basement rock must be older than the Catoctin if pieces of the basement have been broken off and enveloped in the Catoctin:



You’ll notice that the Swift Run Formation isn’t present at this location, though stratigraphically, it belongs between the basement and the Catoctin. The Swift Run is patchy and discontinuous, probably reflecting low-lying areas on the paleo-landscape, which paleo-hills poked up above the sediment-laden paleo-valleys, and were last to be smothered beneath the advancing flood basalts.



It’s a great pleasure to be able to find and “put your finger on” such a significant surface, such a gap in the geologic record. Given that the basement complex formed during the Grenvillian Orogeny (1.1-1.0 Ga), and the Catoctin erupted sometime before 565 Ma, there’s probably more than 400 million years of time that passed between the formation of the rock below my finger and the rock above it. Unconformity surfaces like this are geologic contacts which are emblematic of time passing, but going unrecorded in the geologic record. They are high-contrast reminders of how incomplete the geologic record is at any single location on the planet. They remind us to be humble in our interpretations. They remind us to strive for a multi-referenced correlation between different locations’ outcrops in order to get closer to the full story of our planet’s checkered past.


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