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Archive for the ‘geology’ Category

Farmland Volcanoes


The mound you see here is Mole Hill in Northern Virginia, a bit over an hour away from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. 48 million years ago it was a volcano.

It has obviously worn down quite a bit since then, but the geological processes that gave it birth are still active. The Journal of Geophysical Research released results of a study that found parts of the mantle below this region are peeling off, weakening and destabilizing the crust above. This is what set off the 2011 earthquake that rattled Washington, DC and a good chunk of the Southeastern U.S.

The area sits close to the middle of the North American plate and because of that it’s normally stable. But the evidence revealed by the study suggests the mantle erosion is continuing and will eventually produce more earthquakes. No timetable on that – it might not even happen in our lifetimes.

But the slow grind of plates and the interaction of mantle and crust will continue, and as sometimes happens in these things, can open up fissures that allow hot magma to rise to the surface – giving birth to a new volcano.

Scientific American summarizes the history of east coast volcanoes, presented as detective story that takes you through time and shifting landscapes.

There are two extinct volcanoes in Virginia. Mole Hill is one; Trimble Knob is the other.

Trimble Knob

Drive-by video of Trimble Knob

Overhead view of Trimble Knob



Written by Influential Prose

May 5, 2016 at 3:26 am

Grenville Rocks

Just outside Baltimore, there’s a trail in a state park that winds down toward a small river. The river descends down a short rapids, gliding over rock. The rock is unique; it’s over a billion years old. It’s known as the Baltimore gneiss. This is what it looks like:

The DC metro area has been through four mountain-building periods in the past billion years, give or take a few hundred million. The first one raised the Grenville mountains. Over eons, they drifted around the Earth aboard a tectonic plate, eroding, worn down by wind, water and ice. There were four global glaciation events between 900 and 600 million years ago. The ice certainly extended as far as the DC area during these events, and may have girdled the entire planet. In any event, the Grenville mountains were scoured down and the roots that remained became the “basement rock” of the east coast.

Later there was a rifting, a sort of splitting of the Grenville rock, with some blocks being dragged out to sea. Magma welled up and spread, then cooled to form a new layer of rock 2,000 feet thick in some areas. These flows formed the Blue Ridge province, and you can see exposures of that rock at Catocin mountain.

Later another plate began converging on the North American continent, with the ocean floor diving beneath the plate. This generated a chain of underwater volcanoes topped by islands running north and south called the Chopawamsic Arc, similar to the arc of islands in southern Alaska. The plate and these volcanoes eventually converged on the eastern North American coast, sweeping up everything on the sea floor in between, carrying it all back onto the continent where it was raised and mashed and mixed with existing rock. This event created the Taconic mountains.

The Taconics wore down. The Acadian mountains formed when continental fragments collided with the east coast. This episode created much larger mountains than the Taconic. To give you a sense of scale, the erosion of the Acadian mountains created pile of sediment to the west. That pile was 9,000 feet high in central Pennsylvania, sloping down to 1,000 ft in Ohio. That was just the stuff left over after the mountains wore down.

The last period of mountain-building was the biggest one. This time, 250 million years ago, Africa and North America collided as all the other continents came together and formed a single supercontinent known as Pangea. This created the Appalachian mountains, and they were as tall as the Rockies and the Alps when fully formed. They’re much smaller now, of course – that’s what 250 million years of constant erosion does to mountains.


Throughout all of this, the billion-year-old Grenville basement rock has been squeezed, heated, folded and torn apart. It’s metamorphic rock, with complex layers. Most of it still lies deep beneath layers of other rock. But there are some areas around Baltimore where you can see it, and Dylan and I did that today.

This rock is older than multicellular life, at least 400 million years older. It was here 500 million years before land plants existed. Our solar system, along with the entire Milky Way galaxy, completes one rotation around the galactic center every 250 million years. This rock has made the trip four times.

Dylan found some rock fragments at the site and brought them home. The rock has been in the water, it’s hydrated and its age shows. It’s very brittle and flakes easily. As we were leaving, one of the rocks he collected split in half. In that moment, he was gazing on the surface of rock that no one, anywhere, had ever seen before – formed a billion years ago, and only now exposed to light and a 16-year-old’s wondering eyes.


It’s been a good day.

Written by Influential Prose

June 22, 2015 at 7:11 pm

Martian Geology

This image from India’s MOM mission highlights a region with stress fractures – cracks – in Mars’ crust that can run as much as 3 miles deep.  They’re called fossa, sometimes grabens, and they exist on Earth too. Yes, you are riding on a cracked surface. Have a good day.

Elsewhere on Mars, there’s a volcano notable for being about the same height as Mount Everest. (It’s tiny compared to other Martian volcanoes). The linked image shows a forked valley sloping down from the volcano.

Studies of the valleys suggest they were originally formed by lava flows and later altered by water flow. Think about that. It would require an atmosphere that was warm, wet and large enough to rain down into the caldera at the altitude of Everest’s peak.

Obviously the water cycle and atmospheric dynamics are different on a young planet with about 1/3 of earth’s gravity.

The best estimate of when the volcano’s caldera and channels began filling with water date back to the Late Heavy Bombardment, right about the same time bacterial colonies begin to appear in Earth’s fossil record.

Written by Influential Prose

May 25, 2015 at 6:59 pm

A River Runs Through It



What you see here is over 300 million years of geological history at Goosenecks State Park in Utah. You’ve seen similar vistas before, such as looking into the Grand Canyon, and there’s a reason for that.

At the bottom of these chasms is the San Juan river, and at a glance you might imagine the river slowly carving its way down through rock over eons. It didn’t happen that way. What actually happened is much more interesting.

You’ve seen photos of rivers that meander back and forth in a form called oxbow tails, such as this one in the Innoko National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska:


These develop in areas that have low gradients, i.e., the upriver areas are very slightly higher than downriver, just enough for the water to slowly flow downward. The San Juan developed in that way, over 300 million years ago.

But rivers like these don’t cut into rock. They actually tend to collect and carry sediments, then drop them at turns, which is why it ends up winding back and forth.

The continental crust underlying the San Juan river broke off from the supercontinent Pangea and wandered around the globe. It’s still moving west, at about the speed fingernails grow; if you’re living in North America, you’re along for the ride right now.

And so through eons, about 280 million years, the river placidly plodded along, providing dinosaurs and other animals with drinking and bathing water.

Then the mountain building began, in fits and starts, over millions of years. Today that process is called the Laramide and Sevier orogenies. A thin dense layer of underwater basalt rock that makes up the Pacific plate began diving under North America. The angle of the collision was very shallow, but still powerful enough to squeeze and deform the rocks that make up the continental crust.

That compression created the column of mountains that stretch from Canada down through the US and into Mexico. The average thickness of continental crust runs between 22-25 miles. Imagine, if you can, the epic scale at work here; much of the western basin, an area that was once the bottom of a shallow inland sea, being slowly pried upwards. You can duplicate the pattern on a smaller scale by pushing a piece of tablecloth.

The new mountains transformed the gradient of the surface water’s flow. Upriver was now significantly higher than downriver, which in turn generates faster water flow.

Normally when water runs fast, it flows relatively straight, creating long classic valleys. But this river was already formed. The new, faster flow was strong enough to carry sediments out and further downhill, but not strong enough to alter the shape of the river. So it carved down through the rock…in 20 million years.

So what you see here, in a sense, is a region that has been power washed by an incessant high-flow river running 24/7 for 20 million years, steadily working its way down through 300 million years of layers. This all happened in the last 15% of the river’s existence.

So it doesn’t take 300 million years to carve this deep channel. Twenty million years and fast water is enough to make it happen.

Written by Influential Prose

May 10, 2015 at 10:58 am

Fossil Bike Tour in Washington, DC

If you’re looking for a unique local bike tour in Washington, DC, here’s an idea.

Christopher Barr developed a terrific list of locations with accessible fossils embedded in Washington’s architecture at

So I put together this map, which presents the locations in an order that can be followed for an educational afternoon ride around downtown, together with notes on the era of the fossils and links to the web pages describing them.

You can take your bike on Metro to Columbia Heights and start out from there, then reboard after riding at Smithsonian or Capital South.

1) Sacred Heart Church, 16th St NW & Park Rd NW, Washington, DC
2) Unification Church, 16th St NW & Columbia Rd NW, Washington, DC
3) National Zoo Reptile House
4) Mitchell Park, 23rd St NW & S St NW, Washington, DC
5) Georgetown French Limestone, 33rd and M St., N.W., Washington, DC
6) International Finance Corporation, 2121 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC
7) Lisner Auditorium, 730 21st St NW, Washington, DC
8) Tidal Basin, Independence Ave SW & 17th St SW, Washington, DC
9) National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave NW, Washington, DC
10) Art Deco building, 1101 New York Ave NW, Washington, DC
11) Salem Limestone, 1700 14th St NW, Washington, DC
12) Labor Department Retaining Wall, 200 Constitution Ave NW, Washington, DC
13) National Museum of the American Indian, 4th St & Independence Ave SW, Washington, DC
14) Rustic Salem Limestone, 601 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC
15) National Gallery of Art, 6th & Constitution Ave NW, Washington, DC
16) Reflecting Pool at Capitol Building

Written by Influential Prose

April 26, 2015 at 5:55 am

Posted in biking, evolution, geology

Dry Past, Wet Future

I live in the Washington, DC area and was walking past the Supreme Court earlier this week. Like several other DC buildings and museums, it borrows from Greek and Roman architectural traditions and sports a facade that resembles the Parthenon atop the Acropolis in Athens.

The Parthenon was constructed in 447 BC and has been there for 2,462 years, with some changes. It has withstood nearly 25 centuries of weather, being attacked, bombed and burned. As it stands today, it’s both majestic and tragic.

The Supreme Court was completed in 1935, making it 80 years old at this writing. I wondered how it might be affected by climate change. It is 88 feet above sea level, or a bit less than 27 meters. A key concern, of course, is sea level rise.

This projection of sea level rise from The 100 Metre Line blog suggests water will be lapping at the stairs of the Court by 2320, three centuries from now. In the nearby fountain at the Library of Congress, the sculpture of the Roman god Neptune will rejoin the sea.

Supreme Court (left) and Library of Congress
after 30 meters (98 feet) of sea level rise

If sea levels continue rising, the entire Court building could be underwater by 2600, 585 years from now.

After 60 meters (197 feet) of sea level rise

Our understanding of climate change is incomplete, so these numbers aren’t perfect. But they are a realistic, educated estimate based on what we know now.

Washington, DC after 60 meters of sea level rise

This is not yet foreordained. Perhaps we develop mad geoengineering skills, 3D print massive sea walls, or take other measures to mitigate the climate crisis.

But if we maintain our current course, if we fail to develop a global consensus and act, this becomes a likely scenario. And we must act before the changes become too great to roll back.

Incidentally, the Parthenon is 490 feet, or 149 meters above sea level. Even if all the world’s ice melts, it will remain comfortably above sea level.

The Greeks raised their great buildings to last. We are on track to drown ours.

With thanks to the 100 Metre Line and the DrownYourTown simulator.

Written by Influential Prose

January 21, 2015 at 6:51 am