The 366 daily episodes in 2014 were chronological snapshots of earth history, beginning with the Precambrian in January and on to the Cenozoic in December. You can find them all in the index in the right sidebar. In 2015, the daily episodes for each month were assembled into monthly packages (link in index at right), and a few new episodes were posted from 2015-18. Beginning in May 2019, I'm adding short entries to the blog (not as podcast episodes, at least not for now, sorry!) mostly taken from the Facebook Page posts. Thanks for your interest!

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Episode 380 Makoshika State Park, Montana

The badlands at Makoshika State Park are in Montana, and so am I, but Montana’s big. The park is just outside of Glendive, almost at the eastern border of the state. It took me and my friend about seven hours to get there from Butte, but it was worth it.

Eastern Montana is quite different from western Montana, geologically. The west is broken, thrusted, pulled apart, and intruded, while the east is – with exceptions – largely more or less flat-lying, relatively undisturbed sedimentary rocks piled upon each other, with the oldest at considerable depth and the younger rocks at or near the surface.

At Makoshika, the rocks are from the last part of the Cretaceous Period and the early part of the Cenozoic Era, what we used to call the Tertiary. So the famous K-T boundary, the extinction point for the dinosaurs and a lot more, is in these rocks. Nowadays we call the earliest period of the Cenozoic the Paleogene, and if you’re really interested in the story of the names of the Cenozoic periods, check the podcast episodes from early December 2014.

Erosional features in the Fort Union Formation at Makoshika.
Photo by Dick Gibson.
There’s actually a coal bed near the K-T boundary at Makoshika, but the coolest thing about the rocks in my opinion is their weird and fanciful erosional shapes. The younger Tertiary rocks, the Fort Union Formation, are alternating sandstones and siltstones and shales, with a wide range of cementation, so the rocks respond to erosion very differently. Some erode easily while others stand out in rugged relief. Erosion creates pedestals and balanced rocks, natural bridges and sharp ridges, as well as softer slopes incised by rivulets large and small when it rains.

The sediments that came to make up the Fort Union Formation were deposited in rivers, lakes, and swamps around 65 to 60 million years ago, Paleocene time. There’s a bit more about the Fort Union Formation in the episode for December 4, 2014, which you can find on the blog, history of the earth, together with transcripts for this and older episodes. The Fort Union Formation’s rocks included many highly vegetated swamps which over time dehydrated and were compressed into thick coal beds, among the most important coal producers in the United States today. U.S. demand for coal is decreasing, as cheaper, more abundant fuels for generating electricity, most notably natural gas, are used more, but in 2017 burning coal was still the source for about 30% of US electricity. Just ten years ago, that proportion was close to 50%. Coal mines in the Fort Union Formation in Wyoming, south of Makoshika, produce about 40% of all US coal.

The Cretaceous rocks underlying the Fort Union Formation are similar kinds of rocks, but they contain dinosaur bones, especially further west, and they’re called the Hell Creek Formation. Triceratops and Tyrannosaur fossils have been found in the Cretaceous rocks at Makoshika, along with a nearly complete Thescelosaurus, a small, 10-foot-long probable herbivore discovered in 1997.
The name Makoshika is from the Lakota words maco sica, meaning 'bad land' or 'land of bad spirits,' but despite that I find the land remarkably beautiful. One of the reasons the landscape displays such spectacular erosional features is the fact that this area is gently uplifted. The Cedar Creek Anticline, a long, linear fold above a deep-seated fault trending northwest through this part of southeastern Montana, reaches its northern end near Makoshika.

You’d never think of this as a mountain uplift, but older, more erodible rocks of the Hell Creek Formation have been warped to the surface here, where wind and water have sculpted them for many thousands of years. Features like natural bridges and balanced rocks and delicately carved monuments are ephemeral in geologic terms, usually surviving for hundreds or a few thousand years at most. But they are continually replaced by other features, until the rocks with their variable resistance are all gone, washed down the rivers. That happens eventually, even in semi-arid country like eastern Montana.

—Richard I. Gibson

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Episode 379 Gondwana Glaciation

Today’s episode, number 379, is about glaciers in what is now the Sahara Desert, and we’re going back 340 million years, to the Mississippian or Early Carboniferous Period of the Paleozoic Era.

In the original daily episodes of this podcast back in 2014, when we got to the Mississippian in June, I had a very brief episode about glaciers in Australia and South America. They probably represented an early pulse of the well-known later glacial period during the Permian, and the glaciation provided evidence for the existence of the supercontinent of Gondwana, which was situated more or less over the south pole at that time, about 340 million years ago. 

Gondwana consisted of the continents and smaller blocks we know today as South America, Africa, Arabia, Antarctica, India, and Australia, and the pole was located somewhere in south-central Africa, so it should come as no surprise that some recent work by Daniel Le Heron at the University of London, published in the journal Geology in November 2017, reports evidence for an extensive ice sheet in what is now northern Chad, in the modern Sahara Desert.

Permian Gondwana reconstruction and inferred ice cap (blue outline) from A. du Toit, South African geologist, 1937 (Our Wandering Continents). Du Toit's work was remarkably prescient. The map above differs only slightly from modern reconstructions of Gondwana. The red oval shows the general area where Le Heron (2017) infers a small ice sheet in Carboniferous time. 

Le Heron described belts of sinuous lineaments carved by ice in belts five to 12 kilometers wide and spread over an area of more than 6,000 square kilometers. The features cut into an ancient surface that is interpreted to represent the landscape over which the glaciers flowed during that Early Carboniferous time. He suggests that the ice sheet extended to the west to cover much of what is now Niger, and that the glaciers flowed northward into the sea. The coastline then was also in far northern Chad, so the glaciers probably reached the ocean.

The present-day surface of the earth in northern Chad is actually an exhumed, an uncovered, ancient landscape that formed about 340 million years ago when those glaciers scoured the land. The surface was buried by later sediments which have since been eroded away.

I don’t think the causes for this glacial episode are well understood, although there’s been a lot of work done on it. One of the most recent reports, by Yves Goddéris & Yannick Donnadieu and their colleagues writing in Nature Geoscience in April 2017, suggests that the onset of glaciation was the result of tectonic activity. Just before the ice age got going, the Hercynian Mountains had been uplifted because of continental collisions in many parts of the world. As soon as mountains are uplifted, they begin to erode, and a lot of erosion tends to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide because there’s a lot more material, the sediment, to react with the CO2. Goddéris and his co-workers think CO2 levels fell enough to trigger the formation of glaciers in the mountains, and ultimately by Permian time, to form extensive ice sheets that covered a huge area of Gondwana.

According to their model, the glacial period ended when the mountains had been eroded enough to affect the carbon cycle and allow CO2 levels (and overall temperatures) to rise again. The end of glaciation was also likely affected by the final amalgamation of the supercontinent of Pangaea, which changed climates to more extensive arid conditions.

If you are interested in more about the Mississippian or Early Carboniferous Period, search the archives for June 2014. All 30 episodes that month were about the Mississippian.
—Richard I. Gibson

Monday, December 11, 2017

Episode 378: Pegmatites

If you’ve listened to this series for any length of time, you know that geologists, like most scientists, are fond of jargon. They use specialized words as shortcuts for particular meanings, like ‘gabbro,’ which is easier to say than “a coarse-grained igneous rock with considerable iron and magnesium, often dominated by the minerals pyroxene and plagioclase.” I try to explain jargon terms in this podcast when I use them, since my goal really is to help understanding.

Today’s jargon word is pegmatite. It’s from a Greek word meaning “to stitch together,” and the crystals in pegmatites often do show a complex interlocking texture. But the key thing about pegmatites is that the crystals in them are big. Sometimes really big.

There isn’t really a legal definition in geology for “big,” but pegmatites usually have crystals bigger than one or two centimeters, and some would use 2.5 centimeters, one inch, as an arbitrary cut-off. But it isn’t just size that matters.

Pegmatites often, but not always, have a more or less granitic composition, so they often contain large crystals of quartz and especially feldspar. But they often form late in the history of an igneous granite body, and because those late-stage magmas contain superheated water, they can mobilize and concentrate elements that solidify into minerals at relatively low temperatures as the molten granite cools. Minerals containing lithium, boron, tantalum, and rare earth elements are pretty common in pegmatites.

The crystals grow to large sizes because they have longer times to grow – that’s the basic difference between rocks like granite and rhyolite, which have essentially the same composition, but granite cools slowly and has large crystals while rhyolite cools more quickly and has a very fine-grained texture. Think of pegmatites as the slowest of all, slow enough that in some cases crystals tens of feet long can form. At the Etta Pegmatite in the Black Hills of South Dakota, spodumene, a lithium silicate, grew into huge, log-like crystals up to 42 feet long. The mine there was an important source of lithium for years.

Tourmaline is another fairly common mineral, actually a group of minerals, found in pegmatites. It’s a complex boron silicate that often makes long, black rod-like crystals, but it’s sometimes beautiful green, pink, and other colors, even sometimes zoned from inside to outside like a watermelon. Tourmaline group minerals are hard, around seven on the Mohs harness scale, so the gemmy colored varieties are sometimes made into jewelry.

Besides their value as sources for large, collectible mineral specimens, pegmatites in some places are valuable economic resources, like the spodumene containing lithium I mentioned a minute ago. Rare earths, beryllium, and tantalum are often found in pegmatites, ultimately finding their way into things like cell phones, automobile brake shoes, and capacitors in computers.

In addition to containing large crystals, pegmatites can be big themselves. Some of the pegmatites in South Dakota are more than a mile long, but just last fall I visited a little one in the hills east of Butte, Montana, where I live. That one was no more than a meter, three feet, across, but it did have pretty cool feldspar crystals in it more than six inches long.

—Richard I. Gibson

Monday, December 4, 2017

Episode 377: The Tepuis

Today’s topic for Episode 377, the Tepuis of South America, was suggested long ago by a listener.

Photo of Mt. Roraima by Jeff Johnson, used under  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The Tepuis are huge, high-standing plateaus isolated from their surroundings by near-vertical cliffs. The name means "house of the gods" in the language of the Pemon, the indigenous people who live in the region of northeastern South America where the tepuis are found. They’re especially numerous around the common borders of Venezuela, Brazil, and Guyana, and they include Mount Roraima, the setting for Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel “The Lost World”—a nearly inaccessible, remote, high, jungle-covered terrain. Doyle imagined the isolated preservation of dinosaurs and other extinct critters in his novel.

You commonly see the tepuis called the oldest plateaus on Earth, with suggestions that they are two billion years old. This is absolutely untrue: the rocks are indeed ancient, but the plateaus themselves as landforms are vastly younger, and there aren’t any dinosaurs – sorry. We’ll talk about both geological aspects of this unique ecosystem, the rocks and the landforms they make.

The area is part of the Guyana Shield, one of the ancient cores of the South American continent called cratons, from a Greek word for strength. Cratons make up the hearts of all the continents. In North America, multiple pieces of somewhat different age underpin most of Canada, with the Superior Craton extending into Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Upper Michigan. South America is made up of two large ancient cratons, the larger one in central and coastal Brazil, and the other, the Guyana Shield, in Venezuela and the Guianas and adjacent parts of northern Brazil.

The rocks that form the near-vertical escarpments of the tepuis were laid down as diverse sandy sediments probably about 1900 to 1500 million years ago, early to middle Proterozoic time. Some of the rocks that make up the Guyana shield are even older, back into Archaean time, more than two and a half billion years old, but they generally underlie the tepuis rather than form them. All these ages are similar to the cratons of the other continents.

Ancient Precambrian rocks have usually undergone multiple episodes of tectonic activity, burial, and heating, so they are mostly metamorphic rocks, which means changed form from their original sedimentary nature. The high cliffs that form the walls of the tepuis are mostly quartzite, not much different from the sand they originally were, and they are among the youngest of the Precambrian rocks in the Guyana Shield. They’re still relatively flat lying, not highly contorted like many ancient rocks, and because they are resistant, that helps them stand high and uneroded. But not completely unerodable. These quartzites even hold caves whose origin is not well understood.

That brings us to the formation of the plateaus themselves. That probably happened really very recently geologically speaking, as the result of erosion. The 6,000 feet of erosion that formed the Grand Canyon happened in just the past 5 or 10 million years or so, just yesterday, geologically, even though the rocks there are hundreds of millions to more than a billion years old. The cliffs of the tepuis are high, but not as high as the Grand Canyon is deep. Angel Falls, the highest in the world, drops off Auyan Tepui almost a thousand meters, 3200 feet. The entire tepui is somewhat higher, about 1,600 meters, almost at one mile or 5,200 feet. So the erosion that carved these cliffs, spectacular though they are, could be quite recent, like the Grand Canyon.

There is some evidence that the plateaus might be older than that, but still much, much younger than the rocks that form them. I’ve seen some suggestions that the tepuis formed as erosional plateaus as long ago as 70 million years. It’s almost impossible for me to believe that, because in what has been an area of abundant rainfall for a long time, I’d expect most topographic features to have been eroded away – or if not away, at least into minimal remnants of their original geography. Most, but not all, of the modern day surficial features we see on earth are not much more than 20 or 30 million years old, and most surficial expressions are much younger, shaped by glaciers, wind, and rivers.

In the Tepuis, there almost certainly was a pile of sedimentary rocks much younger than and on top of the rocks presently exposed, and those later rocks must have been eroded off. That probably began to happen when the South Atlantic ocean started to open during the Mesozoic, 170 or so million years ago, when the margins of the oceanic rift became relatively high-standing and subject to more active erosion. It would not have been until perhaps the last 10 million years or so that the tepuis began to attain their present shapes, with their thousand-meter cliffs. The present-day surface of the tepuis is probably flat because the flat-lying rocks of the ancient Roraima group are so much more resistant than whatever was above them. But, because whatever was eroded away is gone now, we don’t know directly what kind of rocks they were nor how thick they were. It’s not completely impossible for the present-day surface of the tepuis to be a really ancient surface, many tens of millions of years old. But I think that’s unlikely. Even resistant, flat-lying rocks are subject to erosion, and they’re being eroded actively today – the huge waterfalls are evidence of that. Nonetheless, the actual age of the tepuis’ surfaces is still debated.

Another line of evidence for the age of the tepuis comes not from geology, but from evolutionary biology. Patricia Salerno, a biologist at the University of Texas, studied mutation rates in DNA of diverse species of tree frogs to get an idea of how long ago those species had a common ancestor. She and her colleagues, writing in the International Journal of Organic Evolution in 2012, came up with 5.3 million years ago for the common ancestor of tree frog species on four different tepuis. That number jibes well with my arm-waving geologist’s guess that 5 or 6 million years of erosion might produce the landforms we see today. Does that mean the tepuis only formed that recently, isolating the various populations of frogs so that they evolved into the species we see today? Well, maybe, but not necessarily. It’s actually possible, and observations support this, that the modern species – or their ancestor – climbed those cliffs to the lush ecosystems at the tops of the tepuis, which might therefore have existed for millions of years before the frogs inhabited them. So we’re going to leave the exact time of origin of the tepui plateaus hanging – but my own feeling, as a geologist who hasn’t done any research there himself, is that as landforms, they’re likely at the very most 30 or 40 million years old, and perhaps even significantly younger. The rocks that make them up are close to two billion years old – but that does not make the tepuis themselves anything like that old. Read articles that call them two-billion-year-old landforms with skepticism.

Thanks to my friends, geologists Colleen Elliott and Petr Yakovlev for helping me clarify some of my thoughts on this. They are certainly not responsible for any mistakes I’ve made.

—Richard I. Gibson

Link to a comprehensive study of the Roraima Supergroup rocks (PDF):