A new river graphic

I really appreciated the feedback everyone contributed regarding the river evolution graphic I posted a week and a half ago. The latest offering is from Kyle House, who linked to a couple of nice summary images derived from Stanley Schumm. Because the images were low-resolution, and black and white, I decided to do some re-drafting. Here’s one (click through twice for full size version):

And here’s the original:

Images like this (and the previous, obsolete “river evolution” image) are central to the way I teach — a nice summary picture that compares variables. This one is more complex than I consider ideal, but I think it will do the trick.

I’d like to thank everyone who contributed to the discussion. I felt that this episode was a great example of how blogging benefits its practitioners. By putting my earlier graphic online, I got valuable feedback that corrected the erroneous and oversimplified way I was teaching about fluvial geomorphology. It was great to get critiques from both geomorphological and educational perspectives. That feedback has lead me to do some deeper thinking about that topic, and to change the way I teach it. Thanks — on behalf of myself and my future students!

Now for the new image… what would you critique here? (…either in terms of Schumm’s original ideas, or my redrawing of them…)

EDIT: Michael M. pointed out in the comments that several of the arrows were too low contrast to be legible. Funny, those colors totally aren’t what they looked like in the Corel Draw drafting stage! Anyhow, I’ve darkened them up a bit in this version:


River landscape evolution

I’ve developed a little cartoon diagram to show four stages of river landscape evolution. I use this image in Physical Geology when discussing how running water erodes the land. Check it out:

river evolution table

There are two rows, and four columns. The columns are the four stages of river landscape evolution: youth, maturity, old age, and rejuvenation. The rows offer different perspectives on the landscape: the upper row is a map view, and the lower row is a cross-sectional view.

The first two columns are shown here in more detail:

river evolution table1

When they are young, rivers ideally start out relatively straight in map view, entrenched in V-shaped valleys. You’ll also find plenty of waterfalls and rapids at this “Youth” stage. As time goes by, the river erodes downward to base level, and loses the gravitational impetus to incise any deeper. The river now begins to meander side to side, and as it does so, enlarges the size of its valley by lateral erosion at cut banks. It is “Mature.” As time goes by, the valley walls get further and further apart. …Then what?

river evolution table2

If enough time goes by, the river can enlarge the size of its valley so much that you can’t really tell it’s a valley any more. At this stage, meandering can get pronounced enough to fold back on itself and create oxbow lakes (visible in the map view of the “Old Age” stage). The story could conceivably end here. However, if base level were to drop anew, the river will begin to incise again, producing a valley profile (cross-section) that looks pretty much identical to the “Youth” stage. It has been made young again, or “Rejuvenated.” In map view, however, you can see from the meandering shape of the re-incised valley that the river must once have been at the “Old Age” stage. There are no more oxbow lakes in the “Rejuvenated” stage, as the river’s energy is going into downcutting rather than lateral meandering.

My experience is that this nice neat sequence works as a conceptual model for Physical Geology students. Nature, of course, is more complicated, but this serves me well as a foundational framework. What do you think? Is this scheme appropriate for an introductory audience, or is it too simple?

Strath vs. terrace graphic

There is an old Chinese aphorism that “the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper names.” One of the naming conventions that tends to trip up NOVA students who hike the Billy Goat Trail with me is the difference between a “terrace” and a “strath.” This morning, I created a graphic that illustrates the difference between these two landforms as I understand it:


Both features are shown in cross-sectional cartoon view. Terraces are cut into alluvium, the unconsolidated sediment deposited by the same river which is now incising. Straths, on the other hand, have the same shape but are etched into bedrock. Another name for straths would be “bedrock terraces.” Straths will sometimes have a thin veneer of alluvium atop them: in my experience along the Billy Goat Trail, this consists of abandoned bedload from older, higher base levels, augmented by lighter-weight flood deposits.

Would anyone with more geomorphological knowledge than me care to qualify / critique / correct my understanding on this terminological issue? Thanks in advance!

UPDATE: Based on Anne’s comments below, I’ve tweaked it a bit:


The coming flood

In January, a large landslide occurred in the Hunza Valley of Pakistan’s Karakoram Range, near the village of Attabad. Like the Madison River landslide in Montana (1959), or the Gros Ventre landslide in Wyoming (1925), a river was dammed by the slide debris, and the impounded waters began to rise.

At Gros Ventre, the landslide-dammed lake overtopped the debris and caused a catastrophic flood which killed 6 people in Kelly, Wyoming. At the Madison River, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers feared another Kelly-style flood, with Ennis, Montana being the (larger) vulnerable town downstream. They carved a spillway through the debris which accommodated the flow the Madison River, though a “Quake Lake” still remains upstream of the dam.

Dave Petley has been covering this growing threat at Attabad since the initial landslide on his blog, Dave’s Landslide Blog. I think Dave’s coverage has been absolutely superb — it represents the best of what geoblogging can be. He has been soberly reporting the facts and offering his considered interpretations for more than four months. He has tracked the continuing mass wasting in the area, the Pakistani government’s attempts to dig a spillway, and the growing seepage through the dam (with attendant erosion). On an almost daily basis, he has been posting graphs showing the rising lake levels and decreasing “freeboard” (distance between the lake’s surface and the lowermost point on the dam — the spillway mouth).

Now, the day has arrived when the rising lake is projected to finally overtop the dam. Dave’s prognosis is not a positive one: the spillway appears to be inadequate in size to handle the flow of the river even at normal rates of discharge (and certainly not during floods). The material composing the dam appears to be easily erodible, which raises the likelihood that the overtopping waters will rapidly incise downward, widening the spillway gorge rapidly into a lake-draining chasm. A flood is not guaranteed, nor is it guaranteed that if there is a flood, that it will happen today — but the situation offers little hope for optimism. We might get lucky and avoid a catastrophe — but there seems to be ample reason for grave concern.

Dave Petley seems to have been a lone western voice raising awareness of this growing hazard, and I feel he should be strongly commended for it. Dave  is accompanied by coverage from the Pamir Times, and a daily lake level dataset being gathered by an on-the-ground volunteer team called “Focus.” One can only hope that their collective efforts have not been in vain. The people downriver of the slide will need to move to higher ground until the threat has abated. It seems unrealistic to expect Dave, the Focus team, and the Pamir Times don’t convince them via blogging. I would venture to say that the Pakistani government should have called a mandatory evacuation of the area several days ago. It is their responsibility to be sufficiently on top of things and protect their citizens.

Good luck and best wishes to the people of the Hunza Valley.

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


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…