Normal grading

In sedimentology, the word ‘grading’ has nothing to do with exams and assignments. Instead, it refers to a regularly decreasing or increasing grain size within one sedimentary layer. Because it is much more common than the other alternative, upward decreasing grain size is called ‘normal grading’. Grains that consistently increase in size toward the top of the bed are responsible for ‘inverse grading’. Upward fining and coarsening are related terms that are often used to describe grain-size trends in not one, but multiple beds.

Normal grading in a turbidite from the Talara Basin, Peru

The simplest way to generate normal grading is to put some poorly sorted sand and water in a container, shake it up, and then let it settle. The larger grains will settle faster than the smaller ones (as Stokes’ law tells us) and most of the large grains will end up at the bottom of the deposit. [Note that some fine grains will be at the bottom as well – the ones that were already close to the bottom at the beginning of sedimentation.] This kind of static suspension settling is not how most sediment is deposited on a river bed or a beach; even if a grain is part of the suspended load, it usually goes through a phase of bedload transport, that is, a phase of jumping and rolling and bouncing on the bed, before it comes to rest. The resulting deposit usually has lots of thin layers, laminations, and there are no obvious and gradual upward changes in grain size.

What is needed is a sediment-rich flow that suddenly slows down or spreads out and looses its power to carry most of its sediment load. Grains are getting to the bottom so fast that there is not much time for the flow to keep them rolling and bouncing around; instead they quickly get buried by the other grains that are ready to take a geological break. While this is still quite different from static suspension settling (because the flow did not come to a full stop), it can be thought of as a modified version of static settling: all is needed is a horizontal velocity component, in addition to the vertical one. Of course, the segregation of the coarser grains to the bottom of the flow may have started much earlier. Typically, they never made it to the top in the first place.

Conglomerate bed in the Cretaceous Cerro Toro Formation, Torres del Paine National Park, Southern Chile. There is some inverse grading at the base of this bed, before the size of the clasts starts decreasing

Such large, sediment-laden flows are not very common, certainly not on a human timescale. When they do occur, they tend to show up in the news, especially if human artifacts, or humans themselves, become part of the normally graded deposits. Deposits of snow avalanches, volcanic ash-laden pyroclastic flows, subaerial debris flows, tsunamis, submarine turbidity currents can all show normal grading. The images shown here all come from deposits of large submarine gravity flows. Some of them (like the one below) have a muddy matrix, but the grading is still obvious (the two large clasts at the top of the bed have lower densities).

Normally graded conglomerate layer with a muddy matrix, Cerro Toro Formation, Chile

In recent years, some questions have been raised about the common presence of normal grading, especially in turbidites. The fact is that normal grading is often seen in rocks of all ages, and, in a simple view, it is a reflection of larger grains getting quickly to the bottom.

Normal grading is normal, after all.

Description does not suffice for an explanation

On February 3, 1967, J. R. L. Allen gave the fifth “Geologists’ Association Special Lecture”, entitled “Some Recent Advances in the Physics of Sedimentation”. This is from the introduction:

“Two stages can generally be recognised in the historical growth of a reasonably advanced scientific discipline. There is an early, descriptive stage in which with little guide from theory, an attempt is made to collect, define and analyse phenomena. In the later, explanatory stage we see that efforts are concentrated on the production of generalisations and on the explanation of the reduced phenomena in terms of general laws. Of course, there is never a single point in time at which there is change over the entire scope of a discipline from the descriptive to the explanatory stage. The change is, rather, uneven, taking place earlier in some branches than in others, and more gradually in one branch than in another.

Sedimentology stands today in a period of transition. Its subject matter is sedimentary deposits, and its goal the origin and meaning of these in the context of planetary studies in general. But it is apparent, except to adherents of geological phenomenalism, that sedimentary deposits cannot be explained in terms of themselves. Already we are in possession of major generalisations about these deposits, and our chief task for some years should be to explore and ratify them in terms of general laws in order that our understanding of the sedimentary record can be made sharper. In those parts of the field where major generalisations have already been established, the provision of further descriptive data is of little value, except in so far as light is shed on the problems of particular deposits. These are validly a part of the subject, leading to a refinement of certain planetary laws. But the other and no less important laws in terms of which we should seek to frame our understanding are those of general chemistry, physics and biology. In order to achieve this framework in the case of detrital sediments, it will be necessary to set aside for a while the problems of particular deposits. This will, of course, be unacceptable to those who claim that geology, or sedimentology, is only to do with rocks as conceived in a historico-geographical manner. But they will be proved wrong, provided we keep our major goals in mind, for it is a mistake to suppose that a description will suffice for an explanation. Most of our explanations will probably turn out to be no better than qualitative, so complex are most sedimentary systems, but we should nevertheless attempt them and try to frame them as exactly as possible.”

Forty years after publication of the paper, this seems as timely as ever.

Allen, J. R. L., 1969. Some Recent Advances in the Physics of Sedimentation. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association 80:1-42.

Three photos from Chilean Patagonia

I was lucky to attend a few days ago a field conference in southern Chile, looking at deep-water rocks in an area that includes Torres del Paine National Park. It was good to be back in this place of unbloggable beauty. The conference was well organized (of course! – Brian was one of the conveners) and we were extremely lucky with the weather: no rain at all on the outcrops, beautiful sunshine most of the time. Although I have been to Chilean Patagonia three times before on various geological field trips and even did some field work there, I realized during this conference that it doesn’t matter how many times you have seen some rocks, there is always a chance to rethink what you thought you have already settled in your mind (see blog title). It was also good to see that these field conferences are increasingly not just about the local geology: many if not most presentations and spontaneous discussions compare the local outcrop data with sedimentary systems from other basins, and try to think about how the always-too-small outcrops would look like in seismic sections and volumes.

Brian did not have time to take a lot of photos, so here are three shots (more here). As if anybody needed more shots of the Paine Grande and the Cuernos.

Conference participants examine the turbidites of the Punta Barrosa Formation

The Paine massif (Paine Grande and Cuernos), with Rio Serrano in the foreground

Strong winds on Paine Grande

Update – here is a Gigapan:

function FlashProxy() {}
FlashProxy.callJS = function() {} full screen viewer

[it is strongly recommended that you do launch the full screen viewer if you want to do justice to the Gigapan]

The science of espresso, with a dash of geology

Almost every morning, I start the day with an experiment on flow in porous media. First, I generate some fine-grained sediment with a well-defined average grain size and proper sorting; then I use that sediment to fill a little basin of sort and try to mimic compaction. Finally, I use a machine to put water under pressure and force it to flow through this miniature sedimentary basin. Then I sit down to drink the fluid which is not simple water anymore, due to its interaction with the grains; and its taste and consistency tell me whether I got the grain size and the porosity right.

That’s a geologist’s view of making espresso. Unless you have a fully automated and ultra-expensive espresso machine, creating a high-quality caffeine concoction is not trivial, because the water must have the right temperature and has to spend the right amount of time in contact with the coffee grains that have the right size. The right temperature is 85–95 °C (185–203 °F), and, at least with our simple machine, the trick is to start the brewing at the right time. Better espresso machines do not use steam to generate pressure because that makes the water too hot; instead, they have a motor-driven pump that generates the ~9 bars of pressure. The correct grain size is easily achieved with a burr grinder (as opposed to a simple blender); a good espresso grind is a fine grind, because the water spends relatively little time in contact with the grains.

The duration of this contact is the most difficult bit to get right. To get a good shot with lots of crema, it cannot be less or more than 20 to 30 seconds. Not just grain size, but grain sorting as well play a role. If the coffee grinder produces a poorly sorted ‘sediment’ (and that’s what a blender does), the coffee will not be porous and permeable enough. Another factor is how well the sediment is compacted; that is, how much pressure do you apply to the coffee during tamping. This affects permeability again. Finally, it matters how much coffee you put in the coffee holder; the thicker the layer that the water has to go through, the longer the trip becomes for the same amount of water.

After using the machine hundreds of times, I still manage from time to time to produce something undrinkable. The art and science of espresso making started to make more sense once I started to think of it in terms of Darcy’s Law.

Henry Darcy was a French engineer who initially had made a name for himself by designing an enclosed and gravity-driven water-supply system for the town of Dijon. Later he had time and opportunity to do experiments of his own interest. In 1855 he measured the discharge of water under variable hydraulic heads through sand columns of different heights, and found that the discharge was directly proportional with the hydraulic head and inversely related to the height of the sand column:

Q = AK(H1-H2)/L,
where A is the cross sectional area of the sand column, L is the height of the sand column, K is the hydraulic conductivity (which is constant for the same granular material and same fluid), and H1-H2 is the hydraulic head. This is Darcy’s drawing of his experimental setup:

The hydraulic conductivity depends on both the properties of the fluids and of the granular material; these properties are the viscosity and density of the fluid, and the permeability of the sediment:

K = kρg/μ,

where K = hydraulic conductivity, k = permeability, ρ = fluid density, and μ is the dynamic viscosity.

In coffee speak, the hydraulic head is given by the pressure generated by the machine, and is fixed; one cannot change the density and viscosity of water either. The most important variable is coffee permeability, which is influenced by size, sorting, and packing (compaction) of the coffee grains. Also, it helps if you get the value of L right, that is, you shouldn’t try to save coffee.

Darcy’s Law was established with some simple experiments, and it has since then been generalized and derived from the Navier-Stokes equations, but it has a huge range of applicability, from ground-water hydrology to soil physics and petroleum engineering.

Add to that list everyday espresso making.

ps. Fantastic resource on Darcy’s work and his law here.

Liesegang bands in sandstone

Liesegang bands are poorly understood chemical structures often seen in rocks, especially sandstones. They were discovered more than a hundred years ago by the German chemist Raphael E. Liesegang, when he accidentally dropped a drop of silver nitrate solution on a layer of gel containing potassium dichromate, and concentric rings of silver dichromate started to form.

In sedimentary rocks, Liesegang bands appear well after the sediment has become a rock (that is, it got compacted and cemented). Stratification and lamination within the sansdtone are typically cross-cut by the Liesegang bands; fractures usually have a more obvious effect on the distribution and orientation of these.

The rocks shown here are turbidites of the Permian Skoorstenberg Formation, in the Karoo desert of South Africa. This Liesegang banding developed in the neighborhood of a small thrust and consists of brown bands of iron oxide that entirely ‘ignore’ the original lamination of the sandstone (not visible in the photos), but clearly like to precipitate along some of the fractures in the rock.

Hurricane sedimentology

Hurricane Ike knocked me off the Internets for a while, but things are slowly getting back to normal. I haven’t been so close to – that is, in the middle of – a hurricane before; I have to say it was quite an adrenaline rush to hear and, to a lesser degree, watch the wind going by our windows with gusts of (probably) more than 100 miles per hour. In Houston, the damage was largely restricted to fallen trees and a few broken windows; fortunately not too exciting (see a few post-Ike photos over here). However, things are very different as you get close to the coast. Along the East Texas coast, the storm surge (unusually large for a category 2 hurricane) has shifted the coastline a few tens of meters landward, deposited lots of washover fans toward the lagoonal sides of the barrier beaches, and destroyed a large number of homes in the meantime.

It is worth playing the before-and-after game with the aerial imagery shot by the NOAA’s Remote Sensing Division and made available in Google Earth. Here are a few screenshots from the Bolivar Peninsula.



The light-colored lobes in the upper part of the ‘after’ image are the washover fans that in places reach the lagoon. Even more interestingly, there are some beautiful little fans built by the water flowing back toward the sea; for each fan, you can see the erosional ‘drainage’ area and little tributary gullies merging into a single large channel seaward, that turns from erosional to depositional as it widens. This is more clear in the zoomed-in pictures below.



Note how some of the streets and roads that were perpendicular to the coast have become sites of preferential water flow and therefore locations for these channels.

Of course, all this cool sedimentology (I cannot wait to be able to get out there and have a closer look) also means that many-many homes have just become part of the stratigraphic record. These beaches and islands are the product of the interaction between storms like Ike, when large amounts of sand is eroded from the beach and transported offshore, and fairweather conditions, when sand has some chance to be deposited on the beach (if there is a large enough source of sand somewhere – usually not the case along most of the present-day Gulf coast).

The message should be already boring, but apparently it is not: these beaches and the barrier islands they create are geologically extremely active creatures, and in general it is not a good idea to build homes on them, certainly not right next to the beach. Hurricanes will be around for a while (and some experts say they are getting larger and stronger); and they are very good at creating large storm surges that are highly destructive on shallow shelves with low gradients, such as the continental shelf in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

Water escape structures in a Cretaceous delta, Wyoming

I spent a few days in Wyoming, at a conference and field trip focusing on clinoforms, organized by SEPM (Society for Sedimentary Geology). Clinoforms are sedimentary layers with a depositional dip of a few degrees that form packages of relatively large thickness (let’s say more than a few meters; could be hundreds of meters in some cases. The point is that the foresets of ripples, sand dunes and other bedforms could be called clinoforms but they should not be). [Warning! – my definition]. After a couple of days of morning talks (many very good ones) and afternoon posters, we spent two additional days visiting some outcrops in southern Wyoming.

These photos come from exposures of the Maastrichtian Fox Hills Sandstone of the Eastern Washakie Basin, a sandstone of deltaic and fluvial origin that links through shaly clinoforms to turbidite sands and shales of the Lewis Shale, deposited in water depths of more than 400 meters (see reference below).

The photo above shows one set of smaller-scale clinoforms truncated by a cross-bedded sandstone unit above, probably of fluvial origin. This is a prograding shoreline. It was a matter of debate whether the erosional surface at the base the fluvial sands is a sequence boundary or not, and could be a blogworthy subject in itself, but I will refrain from discussing it here and now. What I think – at least visually – are more exciting are the water escape structures in the photograph below.

There are two sandy layers visible in the picture; the lower one is somewhat darker colored and more massive-looking than the upper one, which is more laminated and has an overall lighter color. The height of the rock surface covered in the photo is about 1.5 m.

A likely explanation for the structures is as follows (sorry for the arm-waving — it would be nice to put some numbers here – sedimentation rates etc., but life is too short for that right now). Soon after the first (darker) layer was deposited, another flood of the river brought more sediment to this location, and started depositing sand, mostly along a flat bed that resulted in parallel lamination. The underlying sediment was still very porous and unconsolidated, and some of its pore water was trying to get to the surface as the weight of the overlying deposit increased. Thin layers of finer-grained and therefore less permeable sediment got in the way however; and the escaping pore water had to travel laterally until it found the most vulnerable spots to go again upward. There are two of these vertical water escape conduits in the photo. As all the water coming from the lower layer had to go through a limited number of these spots, the velocity of the pore fluid must have increased significantly, until it actually was able to fully suspend the sand it encountered. In other words, some of the sand along these vertical escape zones got fluidized and carried away. The white structureless patches of sand are sedimentary intrusions. The light color suggest that these sands are much ‘cleaner’ than the rest of the rocks; the finer grains (responsible for the darker color) were washed away.

One interesting detail is that the trough cross-bedded sand between the two intrusions thickens into the depression, suggesting that the water was trying to get out in real time, that is, at the same time as the upper layer was being deposited.

Below I linked in an amateurish-looking gigapan; and here is another post on water-escape structures.

Launch full screen viewer

Carvajal, C.R. & Steel, R.J. (2006), Thick turbidite successions from supply-dominated shelves during sea-level highstand. Geology, 34, p. 665-668.

The internal structure of the Peyto Lake delta I have pledged a while ago not to blog about Peyto Lake anymore, but I have recently discovered some beautiful GPR profiles that I have to share to make the story more complete.

Derald G. Smith of the University of Calgary and Harry M. Jol of the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire have looked at the internal structure of the Peyto Lake delta using a technology called ground-penetrating radar (GPR). The principles used in GPR data acquisition are similar to those of reflection seismology, but electromagnetic waves are used instead of acoustic energy, and reflections occur at boundaries with different dielectric constants rather than boundaries with different acoustic impedances. Compared to reflection seismic surveying (or digging a deep hole), the nice thing about GPR is that it is non-destructive: it can be used in situations where you want as little disturbance as possible. For example, it would be a bad idea to do seismic surveying of a leaking reservoir, but it is OK to look for the leaks using GPR. GPR is also used by archaeologists.

But let’s return to Peyto Lake. Although it has long been postulated that coarse-grained deltas with steep slopes (called Gilbert deltas, after the American geologist G.K. Gilbert) have a simple internal structure consisting of a topset, foreset, and bottomset, – and there are numerous ouctrop examples that show small coarse-grained deltas with such a structure -, it is not easy to prove that modern-day active deltas behave the same way. You can easily walk around on the top of the Peyto Lake delta and examine the surface morphology and characteristics in as much detail as you want; but without cool technology like GPR you can only wonder what does it look like inside. [Digging a large trench in the middle of one of the most beautiful national parks is not an option.] So Smith and Jol set out to check whether the topset-foreset-bottomset geometry is valid for this delta or it has a more complicated internal structure.

With only one day of data collection in the field (kind of unusual in the earth sciences!), they have clearly shown that the river feeding Peyto Lake is indeed building a textbook example of a simple Gilbert-type delta. The near-horizontal topset layers consist of gravels deposited by the braided river that is active today on the top; the underlying foresets are also likely to be coarse-grained and they dip at about 25 degrees toward the lake. This angle is close to the underwater angle of repose.

It is somewhat puzzling why the authors do not talk at all about the fate of finer-grained sediments (sand, silt, mud) that enter the lake; it is clear that turbidity currents directly originating from the river mouths are important agents of sediment transport in the lake (see more about this here). [They were probably focusing on presenting the results of the GPR survey.] The GPR signal is strongly attenuated in sediment finer than sand, and this might be the reason why reflections get poorly defined in the area where the bottomset is supposed to develop. In fact, I am not convinced I can differentiate the ‘bottomset facies’ the authors talk about.

So here is a representative GPR dip section showing the topset and the foreset:

It is also worthwhile looking at a section perpendicular to this; note how different the topset and foreset look like in this direction. Reflections are much more discontinuous in this image, suggesting that the spatial scale of sediment transport is more limited in a direction perpendicular to the river flow on the top of the delta (this is kind of obvious) and perpendicular to downslope processes within the lake (this is not so obvious).

SMITH, D., JOL, H. (1997). Radar structure of a Gilbert-type delta, Peyto Lake, Banff National Park, Canada. Sedimentary Geology, 113(3-4), 195-209. DOI: 10.1016/S0037-0738(97)00061-4

Where on (Google) Earth? #138

It must be obvious by now that I am a lazy blogger – it looks like I settled down to a comfortable and boring average of one post per month.

But. I got back my WoGE-mojo yesterday, and bumped into Peter’s WOGE screenshot while gliding over the karstified limestones of the Dinarides in Montenegro.

So here is WoGE number 138. No rules. Have fun.

Crop circles of the deep sea

If ‘cereologists’ (people who seriously think that crop circles are made by aliens) knew about deep-water trace fossils, I am sure at least some of them would argue that these structures must also be the work of extraterrestrial intelligence. Many of the traces are so intricately constructed that they raise the question: how is it possible for a not-too-brainy animal to create such patterns.

This group of trace fossils is called ‘graphoglyptids’ (don’t ask me why) and they are usually found on the soles of turbidite sandstones, layers of sand deposited in the deep sea (that is, in water depths of more or much more than a few hundred meters). Their shapes can be relatively simple meanders, can include multiple levels of meandering, meanders with bifurcations, spirals, radial patterns. The most interesting and most famous member of the group is Paleodictyon, an easy-to-recognize trace fossil with almost perfect honeycomb-like hexagonal patterns.

Many years ago I was lucky to do some work on trace fossils of the Carpathian flysch with two of the best trace fossil experts; since then I haven’t worked with trace fossils but now I wish we did more documentation of the trace-fossil-rich outcrops in the Romanian Carpathians. The Paleodictyon pictures below show turbidite sandstone soles from the Buzău Valley; I haven’t been there for a while but I hear that many of the outcrops are covered now.

The first weird thing about graphoglyptids is that they developed high diversity in an environment with limited amounts of low-quality food (lack of sunlight, hence no primary production; and stuff that sinks down from the photic zone usually has already been food for some other animal). The second weird thing is that they are not simple grazing traces like the tightly meandering patterns of sea urchins; the most widely accepted idea is that they are farming traces. In other words, these guys (whatever they might be, nobody really knows) create well aerated open burrow systems a few millimeters below the sea floor, with multiple openings to the sediment surface, so that chemosynthetic bacteria move in to get the necessary oxygen to oxidize methane and hydrogen sulphide, their favorite food.

Again, despite the abundance of these traces in turbidite successions, it is not clear what is the animal that likes to build delicate hexagonal burrows in the deep sea. It is clear however that the exact same structures have been found near the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. In 1976, Peter Rona of Rutgers University and his colleagues were looking at photos of the Atlantic seafloor and discovered some interesting geometric patterns of black dots. When Adolf Seilacher of the University of Tübingen, probably the most famous trace fossil expert, saw the pictures, he got very excited: he became convinced that it was a modern Paleodictyon. Unfortunately, no other data than the photographs with the black dots was available; no animals recovered from the sediment, and no hexagonal patterns seen below the surface. It took more than 26 years before Rona and Seilacher had the opportunity to do a new dive with the submersible Alvin and to show that the black dots on the seafloor indeed represent small shafts that belong to a hexagonal pattern a few millimeters below, a pattern identical to Paleodictyon (more details in an article by Peter Rona in Natural History Magazine; picture below is from the same article and is © of The Stephen Low Company).

This story is fascinating as it is, but it is best to see it in amazing colors and resolution, in the IMAX movie “Volcanoes of the Deep Sea“, a documentary about the black smokers of the Atlantic and the discovery of modern Paleodictyon.

The mystery of the tracemaker of Paleodictyon – and all other graphoglyptids – remains unsolved: despite the outstanding success of taking IMAX-quality pictures at the bottom and the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, no animal was ever found in the sediment samples, and we know much more about how actual crop circles are generated than we do about the behavior of Paleodictyon.

Further reading

A beautifully illustrated new book by Adolf Seilacher:
Seilacher, A. (2007) Trace Fossil Analysis. Springer, 226 p.

Paper on trace fossils in the Carpathian flysch:
Buatois, L.A., Mangano, M.G. and Sylvester, Z. (2001) A diverse deep-marine ichnofauna from the Eocene Tarcau Sandstone of the Eastern Carpathians, Romania. Ichnos, 8, 23–62.

Links to this post: Book of Barely Imagined Beings