Aeolian sand in Hampton, VA

This video was produced by my friend Pete Berquist. It shows rapidly moving “sheets” of sand saltating down Grandview Beach in Hampton, Virginia, during high winds associated with Hurricane Earl.

What do you notice here? A couple of things jump out at me, but I’d be curious to hear what this video makes Mountain Beltway readers think about…


Falls of the James III: river work

In today’s post, I’ll finish up with my geologic discussion of the falls of the James River in Richmond Virginia, south of Belle Isle. Previously, we’ve examined the bedrock at this location (the Petersburg Granite) and a series of fractures – some faults and some extensional joints – that deform that granite. Now we come to the final chapter in this story — the story of the river carving up these rocks as it incises downward along the Fall Zone.

Unlike my native Potomac River, there is no gorge carved along the James at the boundary between the metamorphic & igneous rocks of the Piedmont and the overlying Coastal Plain strata to the east.

But there is still some cool stuff to see. In my first post on Belle Isle, I mentioned the diversion dam that keeps the river-bottom bedrock (mostly) dry and available to geological scrutiny. That dam diverted some of the James River into a mill race which led to a hydroelectric power plant that was abandoned a half-century ago. Here’s a map showing the dam, mill race, and some other key features:


You’ll note that’s a Google Earth image that I’ve rotated 90° clockwise to fit it into this vertical-friendly blog space. North is to the right. I’ve highlighted the trends of the NNE- and ENE-oriented fracture sets that I discussed here yesterday, as well as the quarry pond on the north side of Belle Isle. You’ll also note a Δ-shaped logjam at the intake for the mill race. The mill race itself is choked with mud (the bigger debris is strained out at the inlet; but the mud makes it through). There are some mudcracks visible there:


Chuck is trying to talk a colleague into drilling a sediment core through this deposit — easily two meters thick. It might potentially provide an interesting sedimentological (and geochemical) account of the last 50 years.

Let’s zoom in further to the ~dry area of the river bed south of Belle Isle; the part the dam makes accessible to sunbathers, dope-smokers, fisherman, graffiti-artists, and geologists:


Again, north is to the right. You’ll note the obvious trend of the two dominant fracture sets, as well as a large number of elliptical ‘dots.’ These dots are potholes, semi-cylindrical holes that get drilled into the bedrock when water currents maintain vortices (plural of vortex: think a liquid tornado) in one place over an extended period of time. Some of these potholes line up in rows — like perforations at the top of a checkbook, these aligned potholes create planes of weakness that make it easier to pop out large slabs of rock in a quarrying process not unlike what humans do with their ‘plug & feather’ techniques.

In the close-up Google Earth image, at the lower left (southeast), you can see that I’ve placed a pair of black arrows pointing to a train of four potholes. One has a big boulder in it, and then there are three others with an elongated axis in the NNE-direction. We visited this particular chain of holes, and saw something interesting.

Here’s Chuck standing in the second pothole, with the boulder-containing pothole in the foreground:


You can just barely make out the two more northerly potholes in the far distance, but here’s a second shot showing them from the vantage of the northerly tip of the second pothole. The backpack and power plant should provide orienting landmarks:


Now take a look at that first photo again — take particular note of the magmatic schlieren in the bedrock. Recall that schlieren are curtain-like zones of more mafic minerals in the granite. You can see that the schlieren wrap around these potholes. Here, I’ll trace them out (crudely) for you:


Potholes are recent geomorphological features imparted by the river. The schlieren formed ~320 million years ago — how could the older structure wrap around the younger carving? Chuck interprets this to mean that the potholes were etched out from some weaker/less stable rock type — perhaps some of the mafic-composition xenoliths that pepper the Petersburg Granite in this area. Certainly, we can see that the xenoliths often appear in long trains, strung out along the plane of magmatic foliation, and the schlieren wrap around those. If the river exploits the outcropping xenoliths as areas where it’s easier to drill, the ancient positioning of the xenoliths could lead to the modern positioning of the potholes. I’ve seen something very similar on the Billy Goat Trail (Potomac River, downstream of Great Falls), so it wasn’t too difficult for me to buy into this interpretation.

Have any of my readers seeing compositional variations (like xenoliths) controlling river geomorphology elsewhere? Do tell!

Finally, thanks again to Chuck for taking the time to show us around last Friday. Belle Isle is a cool place on many levels, and I’m glad I got the chance to check it out in person.

Falls of the James I: pluton emplacement

Last Friday, NOVA colleague Victor Zabielski and I traveled down to Richmond, Virginia, to meet up with Chuck Bailey of the College of William & Mary, and do a little field work on the rocks exposed by the James River.

Our destination was Belle Isle, a whaleback-shaped island where granite has been quarried for dimension stone for many years. The island has also served as a Confederate prison for captured Union soldiers during the U.S. Civil War, and later for various industries. Today, it is preserved as park land, utilized by a wide swath of Richmond’s populace for recreational activities, both licit and non.

Fortunately, a large area of the James’ river bed south of Belle Isle is kept relatively dry by a long low diversion dam upstream. As a result, there are some mighty fine horizontal outcrops of rock:


The dam fed water into a hydroelectric power generation station, but that station has been abandoned for some time now:


The power plant dam has yielded enough exposure that some bedrock mapping is possible for those with the curiosity and fortitude to attempt it. Here’s a simplified geologic map of the area, authored by Chuck and his student James McCulla:


So you can see that most of the area is covered by sedimentary deposits of both modern and early Cenozoic vintage. Our goal, however, was the more interesting stuff beneath that. (All due respect to my sedimentological colleagues; the Coastal Plain just doesn’t get my juices flowing like ‘crystalline’ rocks do!)

So here’s what we came to see, the Petersburg Granite:


This is an Alleghanian pluton, ~320 Ma, and quite large: it extends for tens of kilometers north and south (Petersburg, the namesake locality, is to the south). It disappears beneath the Coastal Plain to the east, and beneath the Richmond Basin (a Triassic rift valley) to the west.

You can see from the photo above that in some places the Petersburg Granite is massive and equigranular, and in other places it’s “foliated,” with long dark lines running through it. These lines are schlieren, curtainlike zones of differing mineral ratios: more mafics than felsics, for instance. The schlieren (German for “lines”) are usually interpreted as magmatic flow structures as higher-temperature-crystallizing mafic crystals raft together in a more felsic flow. At Belle Isle, the schlieren are steeply dipping and trend NNE.

In places, there were also pegmatite bodies that were concordant (~parallel) with this overall magmatic fabric. Here’s an example of that texture:


And here’s a really big crystal of K-feldspar set amid finer-grained granitic groundmass. I guess you could call this a “megacryst”:


Another thing we saw a lot of were dark-colored inclusions in the granite. These were dark due to lots and lots of biotite mica in them. Here’s an example; notice how the schlieren wrap around it:


And another, with its long axis oriented parallel to the strike of the schlieren, suggesting alignment in the magma chamber before the granite set up:


How should we interpret these mafic inclusions? Are they xenoliths; fragments of country rock that were broken off and included in the intruding granitic magma? Or do they represent a plutonic emplacement process — perhaps an earlier stage of crystallization, or an immiscible bolus of mafic magma floating like a lava lamp blob in the surrounding felsic melt? When they’re fine grained and lacking internal structures, as with the above examples, it’s really hard to make that call.

On the other hand, this one clearly shows fragmentation along the right edge, suggesting to me that it was a coherent xenolith at the time the enveloping granite set up into solid rock:

That rules out the fluid-blob-within-another-fluid hypothesis, but is it country rock?

This one suggests that it is indeed country rock, as it is both foliated and kinked internally:

Here’s a heart-shaped inclusion which also suggests that it is a genuine xenolith. As with the previous example, it displays internal foliation that has been folded:


Victor ponders these xenoliths, as well as a dense clot of biotite (dark steak next to the yellow field notebook – not Chuck’s shadow, but parallel to it and closer to the photographer’s vantage point):


The photo above also shows how the schlieren wrap around these xenoliths. Here’s an example where the schlieren “tails” leave the xenolith “higher up” on the left side than the right side, suggesting a sinistral (counterclockwise) sense of magma-flow kinematics:


This one is a beauty. It’s almost perfectly circular in cross-section, though with little flanges coming off the upper left and lower right. However, the “tails” are both on the same side of the xenolith, so I don’t really feel like I’ve got a good bead on its kinematics:


A few more shots of these xenoliths:



This one is a cool one…


… because when you zoom in on the edge, you can see it has some ptygmatic folding inside it. Like the foliation and the broader folding we observed earlier, this internal structure suggests that these are genuine xenoliths; fragments of pre-deformed country rock.


Another xenolith, also showing this internal deformation of ptygmatically-folded granite dikes:


…And this one shows internal boudinage:


Chuck examines a small vertical surface to get a sense of what these xenoliths are doing in the third dimension:


This next bit was a real treat for me. It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of boudinage, that brittle-ductile phenomenon that separates a more competent rock type into sausage-like chunks while a less competent rock type flows into the void between those chunks. Here’s some schlieren that evidently became thick enough slabs of biotite that they were able to behave as semi-coherent sheets, subject to boudinage:


…Not only that, but if you back out and follow these boudinaged schlieren along strike, you can see that they are folded, too! Check out these sweet isoclinally folded, boudinaged schlieren:


Biotite-rich inclusions which I interpret as similar “scraps of schlieren” which became entrained in later magmatic flows:



While everything I’ve talked about so far has been concordant with the dominant schlieren orientation (and thus reflective of main-stage magmatic flow in the Petersburg Granite), there are also some discordant features, like dikes, which cut across the regional fabric.

Here, for example, is an aplite dike:


Aplite is very felsic and displays a “sugary” fine-grained texture. This aplite dike is quite a nice feature, traceable over a long distance across the outcrop. We followed it a ways to a spot that Chuck was particularly eager to show us: a spot where the aplite dike crosses an earlier pegmatite dike, and then both dikes are cut by a right-lateral fault and a fracture set which parallels the schlieren. Check it out in outcrop (note the positive relief on the aplite dike):


And here’s a sketch of this outcrop (above photograph from the perspective of the lower right corner):


What a fine spot to bring students and have them suss out the order of events! First came the massive granite, then the pegmatite dike, then the aplite dike, then sometime later under very different P/T conditions, the rock was fractured and we get fractures: some of which show an apparent right-lateral offset (faults; oriented ENE), and others where no offset is apparent (joints). This second set appears to be utilizing the schlieren as zones of weakness, as it is parallel to the schlieren (NNE) and often occurs along their biotite-rich traces.

Whether the faulting or the jointing came first is a question we’ll examine in the next episode