Rumeli Hisarı

Right after I got to Istanbul on this most recent trip, I took a taxi from my hotel down to the Bosphorus, to check out the Rumeli Hisarı, a fort complex built in 1452 by Sultan Mehmet the II in anticipation of the following year’s siege of Constantinople. It’s constructed at the narrowest point on the Bosphorus (660 m wide), with the aim of controlling boat traffic coming from the Black Sea. This narrow spot is today where they have the second of two bridges spanning the Bosphorus. It looks like this:


It’s in Europe; that’s Asia on the far right of the photo. A few more shots of the fortress’s pattern of towers and interconnecting walls:




Inside, I was pleased to note the variety of building stones. Here’s a nice porphyritic andesite which was a common constituent of the walls:

And a folded limestone:


Here are some yellowish blocks that are weathering away faster than the mortar which holds them in place. There is a Turkish 1-lira coin in front of the dark block near the center, to provide a sense of scale:


Here’s a similar phenomenon playing out with some bricks used to make an archway, except here the mortar is the more rapidly weathering component:


Check out this slab of brick… it’s got a curious adornment:


Zoomed in to show this detail:


Dog prints! Sometime a long time ago, maybe more than 500 years ago, a brick maker put out slabs of clay to dry, and some long-dead dog walked across it. The dog’s footprints are a kind of “historical trace fossil” that was then incorporated into this ancient structure.

Visiting the Rumeli Hisarı was a pleasant experience. I walked down along the Bosphorus next, peering into its surprisingly clear waters and counting jellyfish, then got a pide at a cafe. I caught another cab back to the hotel, and eventually fell asleep, a victim of jet lag…


Speleothem microscopy: soot & aragonite

My friend Dave Auldridge, formerly a structural geology student of mine at George Mason University, is now in grad school at the University of Alabama. Dave is working on an interesting project with speleothems: those drippy looking CaCO3 growths that you find in caves, like stalactites and stalagmites. He’s looking at these speleothems in order to determine paleo-climate with oxygen and carbon isotopes. The carbon soot that’s trapped in the speleothems provides a novel mechanism of constraining the age of the different laminations which comprise the feature.

The other day, Dave sent me some neat images from his research, and when I expressed enthusiasm and appreciation, he gave me permission to post them here. All these images are from stalagmite #4 (DSSG-4), DeSoto Caverns, Alabama. The are all imaged with a scanning electron microscope (SEM), which is why there is no color, only texture.

The first image shows a nugget of carbon soot that, according to Dave, is “probably common cane, that fell off an Indian’s torch ~1000 years ago.” The cave where this stalagmite was collected was used as a Native American burying ground. Prior to going into the SEM, the sample has been acid washed, which means that it has enjoyed a 30-second cold 5% HCl dip.

That’s seriously cool: thousand year old Native American torch ash… inside a stalagmite! Dave reports to me that these carbon laminations suddenly stop about the same time Hernando de Soto showed up in the Southeast with his conquistadors. Then the laminations resume once the cave started getting used as a saltpeter mine. Dave tells me that there’s a little bit of silica in these laminations too — which may be from phytoliths in the cane.

This next chunk may be carbon soot, or may not. Dave adds, it “may be a bug, maybe not…” As with the first image, this sample has been acid washed.

This one shows a coarse spar of calcite, penetrating down into the aragonite. The younging direction of the aragonite is left to right: you can see the bundles branch out in that direction. The sample has been acid washed.

I am reminded of a school of sardines swimming around a whale…

Our penultimate image is looking down on to an up-growing aragonite bundle (inter-fingering of several bundles can be seen). The sample has not been acid washed. Don’t lean too close, or you might scratch your nose!

The last (and most beautiful, in my opinion) is of aragonite bundles cut perpendicular to growth laminations. The younging direction is left to right.

These last two images are incidental to Dave’s research, as no carbon soot can be seen. But he took them and passed them around his research group (and his extended e-mail network of former professors) just as something cool to look at. As he said, “We are geologists, right?” (We like looking at pretty rocks!) As far as he knows, no other speleology research group has cut and imaged a speleothem along a lamination.

Dave’s work used the Central Analytical Facility, which is supported by The University of Alabama.

Fine faulting

Check it out: In the canyon of the Jefferson River, Montana, you can find yourself some limestone (Mississippian Madison Group, I think of the Lodgepole Formation) that has seen a wee bit of faulting:

And here’s an annotated copy… Both of these images are enlargeable by clicking through (twice):

Note the quarter for scale: this is very fine faulting (very small offsets). The thing that struck me as cool (and thus photo-worthy) about this outcrop is the sense of offset on the main “master” fault, which runs from upper left to lower right, branching into two strands as it goes. Compare this to the smaller faults which cut through the block between the two strands of the master fold. They show the opposite sense of offset! (Embiggen it if you don’t believe me.)

While the two strands of the master fault show dextral/clockwise kinematics (a “normal” sense of offset with the hanging wall moving down with respect to the foot wall), the smaller faults show sinistral/counterclockwise kinematics: here the right side is climbing up relative to the left side. It looks like what’s happening here is that there is a significant compactional element to the stresses these limestones suffered enjoyed, with σ1 oriented from the upper right towards the lower left. As they were compressed, the broken slivers of the central pod of limestone (bounded by the two strands of the master fault) “bookshelfed” relative to their neighbors: think of encyclopedia volumes slumping down relative to the volume next door. If this is the right interpretation, it would have resulted in shortening of the rock from lower-left to upper-right. At least that’s the best explanation I can come up with for this anomaly. Anyone else want to chime in with an interpretation?

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:


Same shot, zoomed in to the middle:


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


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





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



…and some spiriferid brachiopod fossils:


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






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!

Pyrolusite on a pterosaur

All the photos I posted over the weekend here were via iPhone, and hence not particularly high-quality, despite their excellent geological content. Now I’ve downloaded the photos from my real camera, and have a few good ones to show. Here’s a succession of photos of the same specimen of Pterodactylus longirostrus, each progressively more zoomed in than the last. It’s a late Jurassic pterosaur (140 Ma) from the Solnhofen limestone of Germany.




I mainly took these for the pyrolusite dendrites rather than the fossil itself…

When the Sturtian happened

ResearchBlogging.orgLast Friday, I spent the evening riding up to New York on a bus. To pass the time, I had my iPod and a new paper by Francis Macdonald and colleagues in Science. The paper examines the timing of one of the episodes of “Snowball Earth” glaciation. There’s some important new data in this paper, and it helps constrain the “Sturtian” glaciation in time.

So here’s the deal with Precambrian glaciations: there have been several. Generally speaking, there was a big episode of glaciation around 2.5 Ga (“Ga” = billion years ago, for those new to geo-temporal argot, and “Ma” = million years ago). There were also a series of at least two, and maybe upwards of four episodes during the Neoproterozoic era (~700 Ma). These latter glaciations have been collectively dubbed the Snowball Earth glaciations for evidence which suggests that they were global in extent. The evidence was high-precision paleomagnetic signatures which suggest some of the glacial sediments were deposited within a few degrees of the equator. If the equator was frozen over, it follows that the rest of the planet was too, due to ice-albedo feedback. That’s kind of a big deal, and the Snowball Earth hypothesis has been a rich source of research inspiration over the past decade and a half.

Now, figuring out just when the Snowball Earth glaciers flowed is a bit tricky. You can’t directly date glacial sediments using radiogenic isotopes, as they will be composed of the pulverized remains of pre-existing rock bodies, and will yield older-than-actual ages. It would be cool to find volcanic layers within the sedimentary package, because we can date those, or to find igneous intrusives (like dikes) which cut across the glaciogenic sediments, because those too are worthy of dating. The younger of the two “main” Neoproterozoic glaciations is called the Marinoan glaciation, and it has been dated using methods like these in Namibia (635.5 ± 0.6 Ma) and China (between 636 ±4.9 Ma and 635.2 ± 0.2 Ma). Locations as farflung as China and Namibia and other Canada can be correlated with one another on the basis of stable isotope chemostratigraphy. Basically, the idea is that there are global fluctuations in the carbon (or sulfur, or oxygen, or whatever) isotope “signature” that gets locked in the sediments, due to whatever was happening in the world at that time (e.g., life gobbling up certain isotopes, or climatic shifts, or other “big picture” events). So the chemostratigraphy allows us to match up rock units of the same age, and the few places where we are lucky enough to get igneous units interacting with the sedimentary package allow us to pin the whole lot to a specific date.

Great… for the Marinoan.

But an earlier “Snowball” episode, the Sturtian glaciation, has not been as precisely dated. Enter the Macdonald, et al. (2010) study. They report four new high-precision U/Pb dates from igneous rocks in the Ogilvie Mountains of northwestern Canada. Three of these are part of the Sturtian stratigraphic package, following the paradigm I outlined above. One, from a tuff unit, yielded a date of 717.43 ± 0.14 Ma, and another yielded a date of 716.47 ± 0.24 Ma: both of these were essentially right at the bottom of the Upper Mount Harper Group, which includes strata that are interpreted as belonging to the Sturtian glaciation on the basis of dropstones (A) and striated clasts (C) like these (from the supporting figure S2 for the paper):

They also found evidence of “grounded ice”: soft-sediment folds that resulted when (they interpret) the nose of the glacier shoved its way forward. So this wasn’t just a floating glacier above: the glacier was in the muck, suggesting it was right there at sea level.

This is a lucky find: a datable volcanic ash layer right at the base of a big stack of glacial sediments. It’s a major advance for understanding the Sturtian in its own right.

They also report a date of 811.51 ± 0.25 Ma for strata deeper down in the stack, right before a global isotopic ‘excursion’ (a big, distinctive leftward squiggle on the carbon chemostratigraphy plot) called the Bitter Springs isotopic stage. Here’s a detail from the paper’s Figure 2, showing how this new date integrates absolute time with the relative time illustrated by the isotopic curve:

That’s δ13C data plotted from three Neoproterozoic sections (in Namibia, Svalbard, and the Yukon). The thick central vertical black line is 0‰, with the left bound being -8‰ and the right bound being +8‰. The horizontal green lines show the new dates from this paper.

So all that is good, and a significant new batch of data for helping pin down the timing of these ancient glacial episodes. We’ve been able to date some Sturtian glacial units and a pre-Sturtian isotopic excursion.

The paper presents a fourth date, too: this is from a diabase sill that is part of the Franklin Large Igneous Province (LIP) exposed on Victoria Island, over 1000 km to the northeast of the Ogilvie Mountains (where the other three dates come from). The Franklin diabase gives a U/Pb age just like those from the Sturtian glacial sediments: 716.33 ± 0.54 Ma. But is this relevant, considering how different the rocks are, and how very far apart they are? Check out this map to see their lack of proximity, from the paper’s supporting figure S1:

Why would the paper’s authors bother with a rock unit so far away from the Ogilivie section? Well, the Franklin LIP is integral to the Snowball story on at least three fronts that I can think of. It ties this story together quite nicely, and I think that it is just as important as the Ogilvie data.

First, on a tectonic note, it’s a mafic unit that is associated with the breakup of Rodinia, a Proterozoic supercontinent. (Rodinia’s position on the paleo-equator is supposed to have sped up weathering of the continental crust and resulting CO2 drawdown, cooling the planet.) Second, it has paleomagnetic orientations which suggest it was emplaced within 10° of the magnetic equator. (This is important because it demonstrates that grounded ice was present within 10° of the equator at the time the Franklin LIP erupted… and due to ice-albedo feedback, it implies higher latitudes were frozen-over at that time, too.) Third, the Franklin LIP has been fingered as a possible culprit in causing Snowball Earth. This is because mafic igneous rocks suck CO2 out of the atmosphere when they are chemically weathered, producing carbonate rocks. The Franklin LIP has the potential to be a major driving force for the CO2 drawdown which initiated the Sturtian Snowball via global cooling. A big package of mafic rock delivered raw right to the tropical weathering belt could be sufficient to trigger an ice age, some workers have suggested. The Franklin LIP was in the right place at the right time: was it the culprit, or only an accomplice? Witness the way that the authors (properly) hedge their bet in their conclusion’s penultimate sentence:

…the synchrony among continental extension, the Franklin LIP, and the Sturtian glaciation is consistent with the hypothesis that the drawdown of CO2 via rifting and weathering of the low-latitude Franklin basalts could have produced a climate state that was more susceptible to glaciation.


Macdonald, F., Schmitz, M., Crowley, J., Roots, C., Jones, D., Maloof, A., Strauss, J., Cohen, P., Johnston, D., & Schrag, D. (2010). Calibrating the Cryogenian Science, 327 (5970), 1241-1243 DOI: 10.1126/science.1183325