Sunday, October 26, 2008

Coastal Plain excursion

Yesterday was the Geological Society of Washington's fall field trip. A group of about twenty of us went down to George Washington Birthplace National Monument, a stretch of land in the Virginia Coastal Plain, about an hour east of Fredericksburg. The trip was lead by Wayne Newell of the USGS in Reston and Rijk Morawe of the National Park Service.

Here's a map of the Monument, adjacent to a small bay formed as the valley of Popes Creek flooded with post-glacial sea-level rise (essentially the story of the entire Chesapeake Bay in miniature):

Wayne and Rijk are studying the coastal processes here in an attempt to use the Popes Creek as an analogue for Chesapeake Bay processes in general. One of the reasons they really like it is because unlike other small bays in the area, it has a spit (almost a baymouth bar) protecting it from the ravages of the tidewater Potomac (which it flows into). Here's the spit heading southeast across the mouth of Popes Creek Bay:

This rotted old wooden seawall was erected along the coast in the 1960s. This is on the Potomac, just upstream from the Popes Creek Bay. Effectively, this seawall serves as a "before" line, a marker which conveys the shoreline's former position. You can see how much erosion has taken place since then:

I'm less interested in these coastal dynamics, though, than I am in the bedrock geology. There were some bluffs along the river which exposed the Miocene Calvert Formation (clay-rich lower unit) topped by a foot-thick diamictite unit, and then well-rounded river gravels on top of that:

Here's Merily (sp?) from AGI checking out the sequence of strata:

My favorite part of the trip was looking at the variety of cobbles on the beach. These cobbles are derived from all of the mid-Atlantic's physiographic provinces within the Potomac River's watershed (Valley & Ridge, Blue Ridge, Culpeper Basin, Piedmont, Coastal Plain). All those physiographic provinces have been weathered to produce the sediment that the Coastal Plain is made of. In spite of their diminutive size, they give insights into the geologic history of Virginia over the past billion years. So if you're familiar with Virginia geology, you will see some familiar rocks here.

For instance, there were a lot of these Skolithos-bearing quartzite cobbles. These are pieces of the Antietam Formation, a meta-quartz-sandstone that crops out in the Blue Ridge province, many many miles upstream:

Skolithos is the name given to vertically-oriented cylindrical burrow trace fossils, which start showing up in the Cambrian period of geologic time, indicating the evolution of vascularized bodies among animals. They are usually interpreted as worm burrows. This cobble shows several different diameters of Skolithos tubes:

Here's a cobble of another distinctive Blue Ridge rock. This amygdular meta-basalt is a piece of the Catoctin Formation, a sequence of (mainly) mafic lava flows that erupted as the supercontinent Rodinia was breaking up in the Neoproterozoic era of geologic time. The white spots you see are amygdules: vesicles that have been filled in by mineral deposits. When lava erupts, it degasses. If the lava cools into extrusive igneous rock before the bubbles have a chance to pop, little round holes are preserved in the rock, like Swiss cheese. We call these "vesicles." When vesicles get filled in with deposits of minerals (from groundwater passing through the rock), they are called "amygdules," from the Latin for "almond," which I guess they resemble in an ellipsoidal sort of way:
(I showcased a very similar cobble here in March of this year.) Like the Antietam Formation cobbles, this Catoctin Formation cobble originated in the Blue Ridge province, and has tumbled dozens of miles downstream to end up out here on the Coastal Plain.

Here's one from even further away! This is a cobble of flint from one of the limestone units out in the Shenandoah Valley, the easternmost valley of the Valley & Ridge province. (I've previously posted on those rocks, too.) While the limestone which originally hosted this flint nodule has weathered away, the flint is microcrystalline silica: very hard, very chemically stable. It's a common cobble to find surviving out here in the Coastal Plain: gsw_fall_trip_08

We also found some rocks that are distinctive occupants of the Culpeper Basin, a Triassic-Jurassic rift valley upstream. Here's a chunk of the Manassas Sandstone Formation, another rock that has been previously mentioned on this blog:

The rock I spend most of my time thinking about is the metagraywacke of the Mather Gorge Formation. (For one mention on NOVA Geoblog, click here.) Here's a piece of it that looks identical to the rocks you'll see near Chain Bridge, DC, or along the Billy Goat Trail (Potomac, Maryland):
This rock was metamorphosed ~460 million years ago, in the late Ordovician, although the original sediments are older than that: perhaps Cambrian or late Neoproterozoic in depositional age. This sample even had a little bit of hydrothermal quartz stuck to it, a common feature of Piedmont metamorphics...

Having covered clasts derived from the Valley and Ridge province, the Blue Ridge province, the Culpeper Basin sub-province, and the Piedmont province, there's nothing left in the Potomac River watershed except for the Coastal Plain itself. And sure enough, we saw Coastal Plain clasts too. Here's a chunk of the Calvert Formation that GSW Field Trip Chair Bill Burton found: He cracked it open and found a shark tooth fossil inside:
This is the first time I've ever seen a tooth preserved as a carbon film. Except it wasn't really just a film, it was more a three-dimensional external mold with a carbon film, and little nuggets of carbonaceous material rattling around inside. Shark's teeth are pretty common in Miocene deposits on the Coastal Plain, including C. megalodon teeth, but this style of preservation was pretty novel for me. If you're into fossil collecting, don't go to George Washington Birthplace National Monument, because collecting isn't allowed there. However, nearby Westmoreland State Park offers legal fossil collecting opportunities. It's about ten minutes further south.

I'd like to thank the field trip leaders and Bill Burton for organizing the trip. I enjoyed the excursion!

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Blogger Tom Bain said...

Now that's a day at the beach! I wish I could identify the origin of the variety of Canadian Shield lithologies popping up in glacial sediments here in Ohio.

I've just delved into the Geoblogosphere myself. I just now discovered your blog and your comprehensive list of geoblogs (WOW-I'm humbled) and your recent survey. My new geoblog is here,

The idea is to present good localities as geocache locations worth visiting.

October 27, 2008 3:18 PM  

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