Saturday, January 7, 2017

Volcanoes in Berks County, Pennsylvania

We are "Cop Rock" we are Screech
We are Z. Cavaricci
We are laser removed
Tasmanian devil tattoos

You are the heart dotting "i"
In the word "apologize"
Scribbled drunk on a postcard
Sent from somewhere volcanoes are

- Bloodhound Gang, "Pennsylvania"
The geology of Pennsylvania is fascinating and is undeservedly neglected in favor of the West's more dramatic volcanoes and active faults. A lot has happened in PA, but the land is old so it's worn-down and not quite as dramatic. And unlike the West there's plenty of water, so there are trees covering everything, which makes the geology even less obvious. For example, the volcanoes of Berks County.

Yes, you read that right. I would've expected Berks County (and all of PA for that matter) to be limited to sandstone, some limestone, maybe some granite. But read the rocks in some of the hills of southern Berks, and you reveal the capricious fire and violence of the planet and the universe. A year or so ago, I was looking at topographical maps of Berks, and this formation in Exeter Township jumped out at me. Here are some screenshots of topo maps to give you context (I'm sure there's a better way to display this but I haven't found it; if you know how, please leave a comment. Unless otherwise noted maps are from Google.)

(If you want to zoom in and play around click here.)

Comparing the bottom map to the one showing-the ridge-and-valley Appalachians at the top, can you appreciate how unlike the hills in the northern part of the county that bottom one is? Isolated, wedge-shaped, and surrounded by concentric rings of hills. Hills in Berks County, as in most of central and eastern PA, tend to be long, rounded off ridges (or at least pieces of rounded off ridges, sometimes dissected by old rivers), separated by flat valleys, like you can see on the top map there. Why is this? The Appalachians are old mountains formed during the Alleghanian Orogeny, a mountain building event that began over three hundred million years ago, well before the dinosaurs and the Atlantic Ocean, when North Africa ground against North America. This means, among other things, that part of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco and Algeria used to be continuous with the Appalachians. At one point, these mountains were probably the highest mountains on Earth, like the modern Himalayas, which should reinforce your impression of their age.

Above, the world 350 million years ago when the Appalachians began forming; Pennsylvania is somewhere in the red circle. Below, the world 200 million years ago when these weird hills appeared in Berks. From and respectively.

The individual ridges today still run for several states in length; as you can see in the first map above, the more southern and central Appalachians trend north, then turn eastward in central Pennsylvania. The most easterly/southerly ridge (i.e., the most seaward of these ridges) sort of peters out just west of the Susquehanna. In practical terms, that means that Appalachian Trail hikers (who have been following that ridge since Virginia all the way to Halfway Springs in Michaux State Forest just east of Shippensburg) have to cross from the now dying ridge through a flat valley of small farms and towns to Dillsburg, and then attain what Berks Countians think of as the Blue Ridge - the last ridge cut by the Susquehanna (one of the oldest rivers on Earth) just above Harrisburg (which is why they put the state capital there) and which is again cut by the Schuylkill River as it emerges into Berks at Hamburg.

The most seaward ridge doesn't completely die though - it continues as a set of lower, worn-down hills like the ones around Mt. Gretna, and South Mountain in western Berks, and finally Mt. Penn and Neversink which continue as the uranium- and therefore (practical point!) radon-laden Reading Prong all the way to Connecticut. Hike up to the top of the newly-added piece of Pennsylvania's State forests, Gibraltar Hill (near the border between Cumru, Exeter and Robeson Townships in Berks County) and the unexpected view it affords may convince you that these mountains were once much higher.

Is that hill from an asteroid-caused tsunami? Many reasons against this, not least of which that impact was just too far south and there would be more and more obvious such remains closer, like in Virginia. Image from Slashgear.

So now you have a better idea why someone might be offended by the very existence of this bizarre isolated wedge-shaped half-cone in Exeter Township, Pennsylvania. Hills in PA are not supposed to be sharp wedges that change direction like the ones you see above, with little concentric ridges around them. And yet, to paraphrase Galileo, there it was. The best I could come up with is that these are a result of a tsunami. What? Tsunamis often leave behind wedge-shaped formations like this; and there was in fact a massive mid-Atlantic tsunami about 35 million years ago, that actually made it over the first (then even higher) Appalachian ridge, when a large meteor smashed into what is now the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula. (Practical point here: the ground is still sinking in Hampton Roads along the southeastern Virginia Coast, about 6 inches a century.) But really, that was hand-waving, and I didn't give any more thought to how I would test my theory. (If you can test your theory, better to test it and find out you were wrong but have a true answer, than let it dangle in uncertainty.)

When later I was looking at topo maps of PA again, I noticed this formation, around Green Lane Reservoir in northern Montgomery County, 25 miles from the first strange hill. It doesn't look like a tsunami remnant at all. But it is suspiciously circular, which makes it look much like something else.

Above: forested hills on the circular ridge around Green Lane Reservoir, northern Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Below: Diamondhead crater, Honolulu in background, from Hawaii Division of State Parks.

At this point I decided it was getting ridiculous, and I better just look at a soil map. Sure enough, those hills are made of igneous (volcanic) rock. Red is igneous. (When I looked at this map I actually pounded my desk and shouted "I knew it!" So I'm a geek, so sue me.) Arrows point to the Jacksonwald Hill and the one around Green Lane Reservoir. Map is from Rocks and Minerals of Pennsylvania, published by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

#1 is the weird hill I first noticed, hereafter called by its proper name, the Jacksonwald Outlier. #2 is the rim around Green Lane Reservoir (which may not actually reveal the shape of an actual crater, but is volcanic nonetheless.) #3 is Monocacy Hill, which I stumbled on while I was running the whole Schuylkill River Trail in Berks (it's a nice hike, you should check it out). Penn State has a map of Berks County specifically, where Gibraltar Hill is also marked as igneous. While it may seem from this list that every hill in these parts is volcanic, as soon as you get north of Reading, that's the last igneous rock you see, and the mountains become well-behaved Appalachians. To get hyperlocal for Cumru Township, there's also an arc of igneous rock running from about Fritz Island, through Nolde Forest and Gouglersville to Fritztown. The rock found on these hills is diabase, which is an igneous rock less macroscopically heterogeneous than gabbro, but more heterogeneous than basalt. Image of diabase below from Sand Atlas.

So I'm not the first person to figure out that there's something strange about those hills and that they're actually volcanic, but once you learn this, you immediately find out all kinds of interesting geological history of southeast Pennsylvania. The Jacksonwald and peri-Green Lane Reservoir formations are both part of an arc of scattered igneous rock ridges that extend to Newark, New Jersey, called the Wachtung Outliers.

Such was my obsession that when I was back in Berks for the holidays, I went to the Jacksonwald Outlier - although you really can't appreciate the strangeness of the shape while you're standing on it, even inside the back of the wedge, which in California we would call a box canyon if we were feeling generous (but again, Pennsylvania isn't supposed to have box canyons). I collected some samples from near the top, mostly eroded, loose rocks on the north half of Fabers Road, some of which I hammered off from a much bigger stone, to avoid embarrassing discussions with TSA as I flew back to the West Coast. (Thanks to Arch for loaning the hammer for this and Ringing Hill.) To my inexpert eye, these look like diabase as opposed to granite or some sedimentary stone.

Completely by accident, during this same visit I accidentally ended up on top of two other igneous intrusions on this visit - the first was Ringing Hill in Pottstown, which features diabase ringing rocks like the more famous ones in Bucks County, and I went there with a hammer to hear for myself. (Video below, but the audio doesn't do it justice. This phenomenon occurs when igneous rocks get glaciated for a while but we really don't understand why from a materials science standpoint.)

I already mentioned the second Pennsylvania volcano I accidentally visited, another newly-preserved park, Monocacy Hill. (Thank you for your commitment and hard work, Pennsylvania and Berks County conservationists!) When I got to the top, I noticed that the exposed rock looked exactly the same as what I found on the Jacksonwald Outlier - and indeed it's also diabase. And again, Monocacy Hill is another free-standing near-conical hill not part of an Appalachian Ridge. (When I found the diabase there in another free-standing, oddly-shaped hill, I thought to myself, "well duh.")

Above, diabase at the summit of Monocacy Hill. Below, Lake Manicouagan in Quebec.

So WHY is there volcanic rock in Southern Berks and northern Montgomery Counties? Because there were a series of large eruptions two hundred million years ago, at the tail end of the Triassic (the first of three dinosaur ages that made up the Mesozoic). Two interesting things here involving the history of life on Earth: there was a mass extinction at the end of the Triassic. The jury is still out on the cause, but these volcanoes are the leading culprit. The competing suspect is the Manicouagan impactor 213 million years ago, another asteroid impact that produced was is now Manicouagan Reservoir in Quebec, and we know it affected far-flung locations because you can find microscopic spherules in contemporary strata in both New York and England (spherules are produced when a mist of molten rock is in free fall for significant time - yikes.)

But again, an asteroid impact cannot be the answer, because the timing is wrong - there's a thirteen million year gap. On the other hand, we're fairly sure that in other areas of the world, continent-wide volcanism has caused extinctions before, as in the Deccan or Siberian Traps in Asia, which would have made the Yellowstone supervolcano eruption look like a fourth-of-July sparkler. There have even been dinosaur footprints found in rocks of this age in the Passaic formation around this area, which is kind of cool; possibly that particular animal even saw the eruptions.

Left, rhynchosauroides recreation from, and right, footprints in Montgomery County. From Spencer G. Lucas and Robert M. Sullivan. Tetrapod footprints from the upper triassic Passaic formation near Graterfor, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. From Harris et al., eds., 2006, The Triassic-Jurassic Terrestrial Transition. New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science Bulletin.

I used to think dinosaur traces could only be found out west like the ones below, but the very first mostly-intact dinosaur discovered (where the discoverer knew what it was, and didn't think it was dragons or giants or some other nonsense) was actually in the Philly suburb of Haddonfield, New Jersey.

Above: leg bone still embedded in rock wall, Capitol Reef N.P.. Below, dinosaur footprint in Canyonlands N.P. The ones in PA are much harder to spot but experts can still find them.

To summarize, I don't think anything could do better than this excerpt from Peter Martinson's Master's thesis, which he was kind enough to put online in easily-searachable form: "Morgantown Pluton is a layered mafic intrusion which lies at the southern corner of Berks County, PA. It is one part of a much larger complex of 200±4 Ma mafic intrusions (Marzoli et al. 1999; Blackburn et al. 2013) that spreads across the Atlantic coasts of North and South America, North Africa, and Europe, collectively called the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province (CAMP). In Eastern North America, the CAMP is represented as a network of igneous sheets and dikes that crop out in basins of Triassic-aged sedimentary rock and conglomerate. These Mesozoic basins are roughly parallel to the Atlantic coast, and were formed during the initial rifting of Pangaea and the opening of the Atlantic Ocean. The intrusion of enormous masses of diabase into the basins coincides precisely with the end-Triassic mass turnover of marine fauna identified by Raup & Sepkoski (1982), one of the big five Phanerozoic mass extinctions (Blackburn et al. 2013)." (References are in the paper.)

As to the question of why these erupted then and there, there still isn't a clear answer. They're studied enough to have a name - the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province (CAMP) - and there is much more evidence of these same eruptions in Morocco than in Pennsylvania. Morocco was just a hundred miles away when this happened, and the Atlantic hadn't spread open yet.

Unanswered questions:

1) What caused the Triassic-Jurassic extinction? If it was the CAMP, was it a mantle plume, and more generally, what causes these terrifying mass eruptions?

2) Why do ringing rocks ring, and what is it about being under high pressures and freezing temperatures for long periods that makes igneous rocks into ringing rocks?

3) Should the Reading Prong be considered just the northeastern extension of the Southern Blue Ridge? Is there actually higher radon (secondary to higher uranium content) in the southern Blue Ridge, and if not why not? On this question, radon risk maps are inconsistent, some petering out with South Mountain, others continuing through the central Appalachians (see here and here)

Finally, here is a timeline of events in what is now the Northeast/Mid-atlantic region of the United States. To keep there from being lots of empty space, I'm presenting it in a less-traditional and possibly even more useful logarithmic format.

References and resources:

1. Jacksonwald Syncline, with map

2. Szajna, M.J., and Hartline, B.W., 2003, A new vertebrate footprint localityfrom the Late Triassic Passaic Formation near Birdsboro, Pennsylva-nia, in LeTourneau, P.M., and Olsen, P.E., eds., The great rift valleys ofPangea in eastern North America, vol. 2: sedimentology, stratigraphy,and paleontology: New York, Columbia University Press, p. 264-272. Also see this paper for Triassic-Jurassic age dinosaur footprints found in Douglassville.

3. More information on the Jacksonwald syncline, with pictures of what the rock strata look like "on the ground". Good references if you want to read further.

4. Peter Martinson's Master's Thesis, "On the Magmatic Plumbing and Differentiation of a Shallow Mafic Intrusive System: Morgantown Pluton, its Birdsboro Dike, and the Nearby Jacksonwald Syncline, Newark Basin, Pennsylvania, U.S.A."

5. Billy P. Glass, Bruce M. Simonson. Distal Impact Ejecta Layers: A Record of Large Impacts in Sedimentary Deposits. (See the Olson et al 2002b figure - iridium from Manicougan impact is too early to be responsible for mass extinction, therefore more likely mass volcanism from CAMP.)

6. Spencer G. Lucas & Michael Morales, eds. The Nonmarine Triassic: Bulletin 3. (See p. 440, which is in agreement that the Triassic-Jurassic extinction boundary is much closer to the time of CAMP activity.)


Anonymous said...
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Joseph D said...

Such a great article. Just a bit north of the ancient volcanic remnants is the Ramapo earthquake fault which runs through my little tractor barn studio, and along the creek just off of 662 and the corner of 562. Most every building here on this old Swedish farm has been altered by large quakes during the 1700 and 1800's, and lesser quakes and earth distortion of recent years.
On one side of the fault the trees are different than the other the other side. Up the hill some forty yards is waterfall conglomerate in what I belive is a Trissic revine lifted by the fault. On this side is limestone and ruble as we sit lower here than the floor of the Oley Valley.
Strange place indeed.
This would be a great place to study eastcoast geology.

Michael Caton said...

Joseph, I have to confess I'm a total geology amateur so what little I know, I learned in order to understand what I was looking at these particular formations. I will be eager to look up most of what you're talking about here. The most surprising thing you mention is that there are buildings old enough to be altered by cumulative seismic activity. But, as you say, it shows that Berks really is geologically interesting, even if it's not as un-subtle as some of what we see out West. Thanks for the comment!