Champlain thrust fault

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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:

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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:

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

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

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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…

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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:

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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:

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

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And another nice fold:

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This fold is transitioning into a shear band:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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

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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:

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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:

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

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

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!

A day in the field

I spent last Thursday on a long field trip in the Valley and Ridge province of northernwestern Virginia. Leading the trip was Dan Doctor of the USGS-Reston. Accompanying Dan was a UVA environmental science student named Nathan. And the NOVA crew rounded it out: professor Ken Rasmussen from the Annandale campus, associate professor Victor Zabielski from the Alexandria campus, and me. We met at the Survey at 9am, and headed west towards Strasburg, site of my Massanutten field trip.

We started off by examining three Ordovician carbonate units (all above the Knox Unconformity) on the I-81 exit ramp at Route 11. This is the same sequence seen at the classic Tumbling Run outcrop: the New Market limestone, the Lincolnshire limestone, and the overlying Edinburg Formation. We looked at fossils, stratigraphy, some minor structures, and some interesting lithified gunk on the inside of some solution cavities (small caves). Dan interpreted it as collapse breccia: lithified sediment from inside the cave. The question was: when did it form? We wrestled with the best way to test its age, and didn’t come to any clear conclusions. I love moments like that one: out in the field, one geologist shows another something that’s caught his or her attention, and the other geologist reacts, and the two toy with the idea, batting it around like a cat with an unknown object. Like the cat, geologists will either then get really excited and attack the new idea, or get bored, shrug, and walk away.

Our next stop was Crystal Caverns, a commercial cave that is in ownership limbo. Our spirited guide Babs said that it was likely the last time she would lead a tour down in the cave. She was busy liquidating the artifacts of the adjacent Stonewall Jackson Museum, which had recently been shut down by its board of directors. The cave is accessed via a small building that has been built over its mouth. It was a cool cave with a significant 3D aspect: we descended in a corkscrew like fashion, then came back up via a different route. Very cool. A shame that it is being closed (at least temporarily) to the public.

We followed the cave with lunch at a local Mexican restaurant, and while we were there, a big thunderstorm rolled through. Victor, Dan, and I played dueling iPhones to get imagery of the weather front and plot out our plan for the rest of the afternoon.

The afternoon was spent visiting outcrops on the west side of the Great Valley, working our way up to Route 50, and then west to Gore, VA. I wasn’t especially fastidious about photographing everything we saw, but here’s a sample of where I opened the camera shutter…

Ooids in the Conococheague Formation:

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Same shot, zoomed in to the middle:

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Fossil (blastoid? crinoid?) stem, Needmore Formation:

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There were some lovely Opuntia cactus blooming among the vetch at this Needmore outcrop:

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From there, we checked out the Chaneysville Member of the Mahantango Formation, where we saw some snail fossils…

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…and some spiriferid brachiopod fossils:

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Our last stop of the day was at the Clearville Member of the Mahantango Formation, which had lots of lovely coral fossils in it:

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Dan put together a Google Map of our 17 stops; if you’re interested in checking out some of these places yourself, then this is a great resource.

I’d like to publicly thank Dan for taking a work day to contribute to our understanding. It was a lot of fun!

Straight nautiloid fossil

It seems I forgot to show this fossil when I found it in February of last year with my MSSE advisor John Graves. We were out in the Needmore Formation of the Fort Valley then. The Needmore is a formation I visited again yesterday with some colleagues in other outcrops further to the west.

In shade (penny for scale):

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In sideways-angled sunlight (thumb for scale):

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I’ll debrief yesterday’s field trip when I get some more time… for now, let me just toss this little fellow out there for your enjoyment.

If anyone can I.D. it based on these two images, please leave your assessment in the comments section.

“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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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)…

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…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:

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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:

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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):

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

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…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:

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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.

Hackles, ribs, plumes

Today, you get a photo from GMU structure student Nik D. This is a small exposure in the Hampshire Formation (Devonian) on New Route 55 in West Virginia. It shows a fine example of plumose structure with the not-often-seen concentric ribs running perpendicular to the ‘plumes.’ At the edge of the joint, you can see the flaring fringe of hackles. Top edge of a Rite-In-The-Rain field notebook for scale:ribs_plumose

Where shall we zoom in? How about these two boxes?ribs_plumose4

Close-up of the concentric ribs:ribs_plumose2

Close-up of the hackle fringe on the edge of the joint:ribs_plumose3

…Even the hackles have hackles!

Good stuff: I love me some fine plumose structure!

Flames and pillows, Route 55

I took a look at some interesting blobby structures in the Swift Run Formation last week, and walked readers through my logic in tentatively concluding that they were ball & pillow structures (soft sediment deformation), though overprinted by a pervasive (Alleghanian) cleavage. As we move west in the Appalachian mountain belt, the rocks are less cleaved: the strain is instead taken up in large anticlines and synclines with a few thrust faults thrown in. Though arched and fractured, the rocks’ fabrics remain pretty close to what they were at the time of deposition.

Fortunately, in the Valley & Ridge province along New Route 55 in West Virginia, you can see some sweet examples of (undeformed) ball & pillow in the Hampshire Formation (Devonian; part of the Acadian clastic wedge). Here’s a view looking up at the bottoms of some of these sandy sags (quarter for scale):

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I like that partial weathering-out of the features into the third dimension…

To refresh your memory, ball & pillow forms when a heavy load of sand gets dumped (underwater) on top of a soft, squishy deposit of mud. The sand sags downward in broad “balls” (if you have a point locus of sinking) or “pillows” (if the sags have a linear axis to them). In between, the low-viscosity mud squirts up in cuspate “flame” structures. Check out this fine example (quarter for scale), found by GMU structure students Joe M. and Justin O. on the northern side of the road:

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…And here we have the same photo, with the sand, mud, flames, and ball & pillow all labeled for you. The white arrows represent the downward sagging of the sand; the red arrows represent the upward squirting of the mud.

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In some places, the pillows have weathered out. Here’s one (quarter for scale) that is now upside down on the grassy knoll beneath its source outcrop:

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Note the thin laminae of mud clinging to its exterior, like a coat of paint!

Here’s a second sandstone pillow that has weathered out of the cliff and popped down onto the grassy slopes below. Obviously, the surface being photographed is a cross-section through the saggy pillow:

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The “upper left” of this sample would have been the lowpoint of the sag if it were in situ on the outcrop. You can see the smooth margin on the left side, and the rougher zone on the right where it detached from the overlying part of the sandy layer. Let’s now zoom in on this box to see something really cool:

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If we go deep here, we can see that the laminations of sand within the pillow show small Z-folds (and S-folds on the other side, though they’re not as obvious in the photograph) that are “parasitic” on the main fold. Here they are, highlighted (white arrows) and traced out (black lines):

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The axes of these small-scale structures verge on the axis of the main fold, meaning that their axial planes (blue traces) “tip over” with increasing deformation towards parallelism with the main fold’s axial plane. We’ve seen similar things before. The axial planes play the same game as the cleavage plane. This is the first time I have ever observed such a structure associated with soft-sediment deformation, however.

Has anyone else ever seen S- or Z-folds associated with soft sediment deformation? It makes total sense to me that they would be there based on simple physics, but this was the first time I had ever seen it myself. I’d be curious to get a sense of how common or rare this might be.

Transect debrief 6: folding and faulting

Okay; we are nearing the end of our Transect saga. During the late Paleozoic, mountain building began anew, and deformed all the rocks we’ve mentioned so far. This final phase of Appalachian mountain-building is the Alleghanian Orogeny. It was caused by the collision of ancestral North America with the leading edge of Gondwana. At the latitude of Virginia, that means northwestern Africa (Morocco and/or Mauritania).

Whereas the first two pulses of Appalachian mountain building were relatively provincial affairs, this Alleghanian phase was a full-on continent-on-continent smackdown. The Himalaya (India colliding with Eurasia) would be a good modern analogue for the Pennsylvanian and Mississippian Appalachians.

When I was live-blogging the trip, I posted this photo of Judy Gap:

It was a bit hard to get it all into one measly iPhone frame (hence the tilted angle: those trees are in fact vertical!), but what you’re looking at here is the erosion-resistant Tuscarora Sandstone (Silurian in age; quartz-rich beach deposits) that outcrop as a ridge. However, here at Judy Gap, there are two ridges. What gives? This is where I was introduced to a new term that is apparently becoming a common phrase in the structural geology literature: contraction fault.

The story most Physical Geology students get about fault types is that tectonic extension causes normal faults, while tectonic compression causes reverse faults. Contraction faults are faults that display an apparent “normal” sense of motion, but were caused by a compressional tectonic regime. How the heck does that work, you may ask? Consider the following diagram:

So the deal with contraction folds is that they might start out “reverse” but are then rotated and tipped over as deformation proceeds. The former footwall becomes the new “hanging wall,” and the sense of motion is obscured by this new orientation. This means that they do represent contractional strain, but a freshman geology student is unlikely to spot it at first glance.

The Germany Valley to the east of Judy Gap is a big breached plunging anticline, as I attempted to show with this iPhone photo from the Germany Valley Overlook along Route 33:

It’s a bit easier to see if you jump up in the air 10 kilometers or so. Fortunately, that’s precisely why God created Google Earth:

The valley is hemmed in by a big V-shaped fence of mountains, all held up by the Tuscarora. It’s tough stuff. During Alleghanian folding, the crest of the anticline was breached, and water was able to get inside and gut the weaker rocks. The quarry annotated in the photo is mining the same Cambrian and Ordovician carbonates seen in the Shenandoah Valley back in Virginia (Lincolnshire and Edinburg Formation equivalents). A pattern geologists have noted with eroded anticlines is that older rocks are exposed in the middle of the structure, with younger rocks flanking them along the sides.

So that’s a glimpse of the big picture of deformation in the Valley & Ridge, but we can also see cool deformation at smaller scales… Stay tuned…

Transect Trip 27: fluvial overbank deposits

Over on the far right by Chuck Bailey (yellow shirt) you can see the crescent-shaped profile of a river channel (gray color). To the left of that, you can see levee deposits, and beyond that (to the left) crevasse splay deposits and the floodplain (dark red mudstones). This is in the Hampshire Formation, part of the Acadian “clastic wedge.”

Transect Trip 26: Bouma sequence

Here we are in the Brallier Formation, a Devonian turbidite sequence. Prominent in the middle of this photo is the Bouma “C” horizon with the cross- bedding.

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