Day #108 Outcrop: Carlin Canyon Angular Unconformity

This is the second of two GigaPanned outcrops I’m posting this weekend accompanied by text from Annals of the Former World, by John McPhee, upon which I cannot improve…

Interstate 80, in its complete traverse of the North American continent, goes through much open space and three tunnels. As it happens, one tunnel passes through young rock, another through middle-aged rock, and the third through rock that is fairly old, at least with respect to the rock now on earth which has not long since been recycled. At Green River, Wyoming, the road goes under a remnant of the bed of a good-sized Cenozoic lake. The tunnel through Yerba Buena Island, in San Francisco Bay, is in sandstones and shales of the Mesozoic. And in Carlin Canyon, in Nevada, the road makes a neat pair of holes in Paleozoic rock. This all but leaves the false impression that an academic geologist chose the sites-and now, as we approached the tunnel at Carlin Canyon, Deffeyes became so evidently excited that on might have thought he had done so himself, “Yewee zink bogawa!” he said as the pickup rounded a curve and the tunnel appeared in view. I glanced at him, and then followed his gaze to the slope above the tunnel, and failed to see there in the junipers and the rubble what it was that could cause this professor to break out in such language. He did not slow up. He had been here before. He drove through the westbound tube, came out into daylight, and, pointing to the right, said, “Shazam!” He stopped on the shoulder, and we admired the scene. The Humboldt river, blue and full, was flowing toward us, with panes of white ice at its edges, sage and green meadow beside it, and dry russet uplands rising behind. I said I thought that was lovely. He said yes, it was lovely indeed, it was one of the loveliest angular unconformities I was ever likely to see.

Carlin Canyon Angular Unconformity

The river turned in our direction after bending by a wall of its canyon, and the wall had eroded so unevenly that a prominent remnant now stood on its own as a steep six-hundred-foot hill. It made a mammary silhouette against the sky. Mu mind worked its way through that image, but still I was not seeing what Deffeyes was seeing. Finally, I took it in. More junipers and rubble and minor creases of erosion had helped withhold the story from my eye. The hill, structurally, consisted of two distinct rock formation, awry to each other, awry to the gyroscope of the earth-just stuck together there like two artistic impulses in a pointedly haphazard collage. Both formations were of stratified rock, sedimentary rock, put down originally in and beside the sea, where they had lain, initially flat. But now the strata of the upper part of the hill were dipping more than sixty degrees, and the strata of the lower part of the hill were standing almost straight up on end. It was as if, through an error in demolition, one urban building had collapsed upon another. In order to account for that hillside, Deffeyes was saying, you had to build a mountain range, destroy it, and then build a second set of mountains in the same place, and for the most part destroy them. You would first have had the rock of the lower strata lying flat-a conglomerate with small bright pebbles like effervescent bubbles in a matrix red as wine. Then the forces that had compressed the region and produced mountains would have tilted the red conglomerate, not to the vertical, where it stood now, but something like forty-five degrees. That mountain range wore away-from peaks to hills to nubbins and on down to nothing much but a horizontal line, the beveled surface of slanting strata, eventually covered by a sea. In the water, the new sediment of the upper formation would have accumulated gradually upon that surface, and, later, the forces building a fresh mountain range would have shoved, lifted, and rotated the whole package to something close to its present position, with its lower strata nearly vertical and its upper strata aslant. Here in Carlin Canyon, basin-and-range faulting, when it eventually came along, had not much affected the local structure, further tilting the package only two or three degrees.

Clearly, if you were going to change a scene, and change it again and again, you would need adequate time. To make the rock of that lower formation and then tilt it up and wear it down and deposit sediment on it to form the rock above would require an immense quantity of time, and amount that was expressed in the clean, sharp line that divided the formations-the angular unconformity itself. The lower formation, called Tonka, formed in middle Mississippian time. The upper formation, called Strathearn, was deposited forty million years afterward, in the late Pennsylvanian time. — John McPhee


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