Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Landscape Change – How Fast?

A major question from the beginning of geology as a science has been how fast does change take place? From the Literalist read of the Bible, it would seem 6,000 years is far too short a time to permit the development of tens of thousands of meters of sediment, with remains of primitive life-forms at the bottom and advanced life-forms preserved at the top. The first rough estimates of the rate of sedimentation were made in England, by thoughtful natural scientists measuring how fast mud accumulated in a pond. These early geologists had already mapped thick stacks – thousands of meters of distinctive layers - of sediment in cliffs, road-cuts, and quarries. They had seen the same sequences long distances away, implying the same sedimentary process was happening over a very wide area. Finally, they had realized that for mud and sand to accumulate to thousands of meters of thickness, would take at minimum many millions of years. This was really the first baby step of geoscience.

Q: Hello, my name is Jurgen and I am currently enrolled in an AP Environmental Science class and have a question about river formation. I hope you can answer my question.
How long does it take for a gully or rill to be formed into a river if there is a constant stream or supply of water running through the land?  Thank you.
--Jurgen P

A: Time for a gully to become a river can vary wildly from less than a hundred to many millions of years. Generally, most terrains are in some sort of equilibrium and don't change much over time – unless disturbed by something, like a tectonic event. This is sometimes called "punctuated equilibrium." The change of a feature from one form to another (like a gully to a river) implies a permanent shift in the rainfall regime - some form of climate change – or tectonic uplift.

Change from a gully to a river could also have a lot to do with human intervention. I've walked down 10-meter-deep, steep-walled gullies that were really mini-canyons (Arroyos) in SE Arizona. These apparently didn't begin to form until man introduced cattle in the late 19th Century. Early journals from some of the first visitors describe “grass that was belly-high to a horse.” These cattle quickly wiped out the native prairie grasses by over-grazing the landscape. When Arizona earned its statehood in 1912, it had a human population of about 12,000 people, but an estimated cattle population of perhaps 10,000,000. Soils started disappearing rapidly with no roots to hold them, and small rivulets began to rip through the landscape and form small canyons in less than a century. Events like this, and the 1930's Dust Bowl, lead to the formation of the US Bureau of Land Management and the US Soil Conservation Service during the 20th Century.

Tectonic uplift can also weigh in powerfully, but tectonic shifts are generally relatively slow - slow at least in typical human time-frames. The Grand Canyon only began to form (cut down through pre-existing Precambrian to Mesozoic rocks) about 70 million years ago. The actual timing of the initial incision and the final down-cutting is still being argued today by geologists as more evidence accumulates, but it appears to have been quite rapid at the beginning.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Unconformity? Disconformity?

Here's a purely geologic question by someone who has already taken at least one course in geology. The question opens up and highlignts the three-dimensional aspect of geology - and why mathematics (especially geometry) is such a fundamental prerequisite for studying geology. Some people persist in saying that a geologist is just someone who didn't do well in physics or math. The hard reality is that physics, math, chemistry, and English composition are the building blocks - the basic tools - of a modern geologist. Some of the most sophisticated geology being carried out these days is done with computers. Drill-hole information is fundamentally three-dimensional, and the ability to construct three dimensional landscapes from surface mapping and drill-hole intercepts is just so very cool. To rotate this 3D landscape on one or several computer screens, showing how individual components evolved in time in a single giant cubic space... is absolutely essential to numerically assessing any resources the land under the geologic map may host.

Q: I have a question regarding identifying unconformity on geological map. I have attached a map as an example. How do we identify unconformity on such 2D geological maps if each colour represents a different rock? Please advice.
Thank you and hope to hear from you soon. Regards
- Hazel A

A: I have not downloaded your map and looked at it in detail, but just looked at it via the attached thumbnail. We are discouraged pretty strongly from downloading and opening any files from unknown individuals that might potentially be vectors for malware. For the purposes of this Q/A, a map is not really necessary, however. 

I'd like, instead, to address your question on a somewhat broader level: The inherent problem with a geological map is that it represents the surface of the land. It's a view looking downwards from space, which is not always the same as looking downwards in time. Sometimes, with tectonic and erosional events, older in time doesn't necessarily mean deeper in the Earth.

An unconformity is a gap in sedimentary deposition for one of several fairly specific reasons: non-deposition, subsequent erosion, etc. It is not easily represented in a geologic map, which only shows just one sub-horizontal surface - the part exposed to the sky. An unconformity means that there has been a time break in the geologic record. This is quite different from a juxtaposition of different geologic units due to, say, a thrust fault (though they could both be involved at the same time). 

In practicality, this means that the geologist who produces the map must somehow indicate or convey any unconformity (or disconformity, or nonconformity, or paraconformity, etc.: see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unconformity ) in her/his *Correlation of Map Units* columns on the side of the geologic map.

For most people not intimately familiar with a particular local or regional geology, it would be very difficult if not impossible to determine if some break between units is an unconformity or a fault juxtaposition just from looking at a geologic map alone. A change in rock-type could mean any of several much more common things: a change in sedimentary regime (like an ocean transgression), an intrusive event (like a big granite body punching up from the Mantle), a volcanic eruption, any of several different kinds of fault, etc., exposed at the earth's surface. 

It comes down to the fundamental difference between a map view (looking down at the ground from space),  and a cross-section view (looking at the ground side-ways, as if a giant trench had been cut in the landscape). However, even in an exposed cross-section, considerable sleuthing is required to determine if a break is an unconformity or not.