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!



Sunday morning, NOVA adjunct geology instructor Chris Khourey and I went out to Sugarloaf Mountain, near Comus, Maryland, to poke around and assess the geology. Sugarloaf is so named because it’s “held up” by erosion-resistant quartzite. It’s often dubbed “the only mountain in the Piedmont,” which refers to the Piedmont physiographic province. Here’s a map, made with GeoMapApp and annotated by me, showing the general area:

A larger version of the map can be viewed by clicking here.

On the far west, you can see the Valley & Ridge province, which ends at the Blue Ridge Thrust Fault. Then the Blue Ridge province runs east from the Blue Ridge itself to Catoctin Mountain. From there, you enter the Piedmont, including both the “crystalline” Piedmont (Paleozoic metamorphism of various ocean basin protoliths, plus infusions of granite) and the Culpeper Basin, a Triassic/Jurassic rift valley. The Potomac River cuts a series of three spectacular water gaps across the Blue Ridge province just west of Sugarloaf. Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, is located at the confluence of the Potomac and the Shenandoah Rivers by the westernmost of these water gaps, and the name for the easternmost one is “Point of Rocks.”

Here’s a look at a detail from the southeastern corner of the geologic map of the Buckeystown, MD quadrangle, by Scott Southworth and David Brezinski:

The map pattern shows a that the area around Sugarloaf Mountain is a doubly-plunging anticlinorium of Sugarloaf Mountain Quartzite [SMQ] and overlying (younger) Urbana Formation. Overall, it’s got that typical “Appalachian” northeast-southwest trend. Notice the thrust fault on the west side: a typical hanging wall anticline? The ridges, including the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain itself, are held up by the toughest quartzite. This overall “squashed donut” shape shows up pretty well in the physiographic map up at the top of this post.

Sugarloaf is quartzite (metamorphic), but you can clearly see the sand grains that composed its protolith (sedimentary). There’s also reports of cross-bedding, and so Chris asked me to take a look at a few structures to assess them with my point of view. I found a pervasive cleavage in the rock, far more than I would have suspected would be there. We did find bedding exposed as compositional/grain size layers in several locations, including on the summit. I also paid a lot of attention to the many quartz veins which cut the metasedimentary quartzite. These veins of “milky quartz” are often arranged in lovely en echelon series, like these tension gashes:


I took the above photo several years ago on a visit there, but it’s typical of the sorts of stuff we saw Sunday. The kinematic sense of this outcrop would be “top to the right.” Interestingly, none of the Sugarloaf outcrops show really deformed tension gashes (i.e., they’re not folded into Z or S shapes like those I showed you a few days ago).

What we really wanted to get a sense of, though, was which way was up in these rocks. We were in search of geopetal structures: primary sedimentary structures that indicate the “younging direction” of the beds. Graded beds can do this, though I didn’t see any unambiguous graded beds in the SMQ on Sunday’s trip. We wanted some cross-beds. We found some hummocky / swaley examples, looking approximately like this USGS photograph (black & white; hammer for scale) of an outcrop somewhere “north of the summit”:

crossbedding_USGS_sugarloafImage source: USGS

Ours wasn’t as beautiful as the one pictured above, but it was clearly hummocky cross-bedding, and it was right-side-up (in beds tilted at ~30°). Interestingly, the SMQ has been correlated by Southworth and Brezinski (2003) with the Weverton Formation of the Chilhowee Group, a rock unit exposed in the Blue Ridge. Just as the Weverton is overlain by the finer-grained Harpers Formation, so too is the SMQ overlain by a finer-grained unit, the Urbana Formation. Both are interpreted as metamorphosed continental margin deposits. The Urbana is mostly phyllite in the areas I’ve seen it (including phyllite that’s full of quartz grains, a first for me). The Urbana is well exposed in a creek-side outcrop north of Sugarloaf Mountain, and I took Chris there to show him the lovely intersection of bedding and cleavage.

Here is a weathered piece of the Urbana Formation that Chris collected there, looking at the plane of cleavage (ruler in background for scale):

urbana Image source: Christopher Khourey

You can see the bedding running ~horizontally across it, though the photo cannot convey the lovely phyllitic sheen that results from waggling these samples back and forth in good light. It’s pretty cool. In places, the transition from sandy to phyllitic is gradational, probably relict graded bedding.

So, what does it mean if Southworth and Brezinski (2003) are correct in their correlation, and the Weverton and the SMQ are really the same rock layer, but in different provinces and at different metamorphic grades? Recall that the Blue Ridge province to the west is also a thrust-faulted anticlinorium, launched up and to the west by the Alleghanian Orogeny from an original position deeper in the crust and further towards the east. It’s a shard of the craton, snapped off and shoved bodily up and to the northwest. (In class, I often liken it to Joe Theismann’s leg: a compound fracture of the continental crust.) Might the Sugarloaf Mountain Anticlinorium [SMA] be a smaller version of the Blue Ridge pulling the same trick? It too is arched up and snapped off …but it would be a “Mini-Me” that’s only just surfacing, like a baby whale swimming above momma whale’s back…


We know that deeper down in the Blue Ridge stratigraphy, we find the Catoctin Formation, the Swift Run Formation, and the basement complex. If we drilled down through the crest of the SMA, would we find the same units (or more metamorphosed equivalents thereof)? It’s an intriguing thought…

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 debrief 5: sedimentation continues

We just looked at the Chilhowee Group, a package of sediments that records the transition for the North American mid-Atlantic from Iapetan rifting through to passive margin sedimentation associated with the Sauk Sea transgression. Well, if we journey a bit further west, we see the sedimentary stack isn’t done telling its story. The saga continues through another two pulses of mountain building. Consider this “unfolded, unfaulted” east-west cross-section cartoon:


Part A of the image above shows the overall stratigraphic sequence for the Blue Ridge and the Valley & Ridge provinces in Virginia and West Virginia. You’ll notice that the small, detailed stratigraphic column I used to start the last two posts covers just the bottom 6 layers in this stack. Zoomed out to the bigger picture, we see ~40 layers overall. Lynn Fichter of James Madison University, one of the leaders of the Transect Trip, has published an excellent information-dense guide to the mid-Atlantic column. It’s a terrific reference for anyone looking to learn more about these rocks and the story they tell.

Part B of the image above shows the tectonic interpretation of these different packages of rock — some represent rifting, some represent passive margin sedimentation, some represent clastic influence from various orogenies occurring to the east (Taconian and Acadian).

The cartoon cross-section below, modified from an original by Steve Marshak in his excellent introductory textbook Earth: Portrait of a Planet, shows the tectonic evolution of the east coast over the past ~1 billion years of geologic time. It is reprinted here with Steve’s permission.


The story begins with the Grenville Orogeny, an episode of mountain building that completes the assembly of the Rodinian supercontinent. This is followed by Iapetan rifting, followed by three pulses of Appalachian mountain-building: the Taconian (“Taconic“) Orogeny, the Acadian Orogeny, and the culminating event of Pangean supercontinental assembly, the Alleghanian (“Alleghenian”) Orogeny. Finally, Pangea breaks up in the Mesozoic, an event also known as Atlantic rifting. Two complete Wilson Cycles are preserved by the Appalachian mountain belt!

The Valley & Ridge province received sediment courtesy of the Taconian and Acadian Orogenies, but wasn’t directly involved with the tectonic collision in any deformational way. Notice how west of both those orogenies in the Marshak diagram you see a fresh layer of sediment being deposited atop the North American craton.

During the field trip, I posted some iPhone photos of the sedimentary strata that accumulated in the Valley & Ridge during the mid-Paleozoic, shed off from the orogenic activity to the east. For example, the Brallier Formation’s turbidites record a time when sea was west and mountains were east. Or the Juniata Formation’s red beds speak of a time in the late Ordovician when an advancing clastic wedge had piled sediment up above sea level. This shot of some of those red beds preserves some beautiful depositional relationships from ~440 million year old river systems.

Let’s annotate that, shall we?


Even in the Ordovician, rivers did what they do today, spilling over their bansk and building up natural levees. Same as it ever was, people.

That “sediment only; no deformation” regime for the Valley & Ridge changed with the Alleghanian Orogeny. That’s when deformation propagated to the west, encompassing the flat-lying Valley & Ridge strata into a proper fold-&-thrust belt. Later, differential erosion of these folded and faulted layers would etch the landscape into a series of valleys and ridges… hence the province name. More on that deformation in the next post.

Glacial striations, southern Central Park

New York City has some cool geology: Paleozoic metamorphics scraped by Pleistocene glaciers.

Differential weathering in the Manhattan Schist

S.E. Central Park:

Piedmont rocks exposed in a creek

One of the cool things about being the local geoblogger is that people get in touch with you about local geology. Sometimes this even leads to meeting up for field trips. Here’s two quick photos from a recent (January 2010) field trip to a creek near Springfield, Virginia.

My host was Barbara X, a local aficionada of Piedmont geology. She has lived in this particular neighborhood for many years, and is very familiar with the local woods and drainages through decades of dog-walking there.

Her main question for me was “Could the geologic map of this area be wrong?” She showed me the map, and then took me out to an outcrop which clearly was of a different rock type than the map indicated it “should” be.

The offending intruder, a meta-basalt with two prominent joint-sets:


A short distance downstream, a cut bank revealed some saprolitic rock that is more typical of the Piedmont province:


I think we’re seeing bodies of schist/ gneiss (highly foliated in cross-section), as well as coarse-grained, lighter-colored bodies of granite. All of them have been weathered to hell: you can scoop handfuls of this “rock” out of the outcrop if you want. If you’re a plant, you can plunge your apical meristem right into it, and let the roots follow.

This is typical “outcrop” around here: though the mid-Atlantic region has a fascinating story (including the Appalachian mountain belt, like these rocks), the wet climate has rotted most rock away. The only other thing that’s worth mentioning about this particular outcrop are the upper-left-to-lower-right brown lines: those are fracture traces decorated with rust. The fractures serve as plumbing to move fluids around in the subsurface, and their dissolved cargo of elements can then react with the rock on either side of the fracture.