Some questions about the ‘megatsunami chevrons’: addendum A couple of months ago I have written about some coastal ‘chevron dunes’ that have been interpreted as the onshore deposits of humongous tsunamis. The subject has been on the tip of my fingers for quite some time and I thought I managed to google up most of the related papers, news articles, and blog posts, but it turns out that I missed one highly relevant discussion: in the January 2008 issue of GSA Today, there is a short paper by Nicholas Pinter and Scott E. Ishman of Southern Illinois University, entitled “Impacts, mega-tsunami, and other extraordinary claims“. [Note to self: looking things up in Google and Google Scholar is not always enough, not even for blogging.]

Pinter and Ishman criticize both the idea that several impact-related megatsunamis occurred during the last 10,000 years and the hypothesis that a 12,900 year old impact caused “Younger Dryas climate event, extinction of Pleistocene mega-fauna, demise of the Clovis culture, the dawn of agriculture, and other events”. The first idea is promoted by Dallas Abbott (at Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory) and her co-workers, but there is no real peer-reviewed publication yet; the second has been put forward by Richard Firestone (of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory) et al. in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and a book. The evidence for the 12.9-ka impact includes magnetic grains, microspherules, iridium, glass-like carbon, carbonaceous deposits draped over mammoth bones, fullerenes enriched in 3He, and micron-scale “nanodiamonds”. Pinter and Ishman suggest that

the data are not consistent with the 4–5-km-diameter impactor that has been proposed, but rather with the constant and certainly noncatastrophic rain of sand-sized micrometeorites into Earth’s atmosphere.

But I am going to focus here on the ‘chevron dune’ part of the story. Pinter and Ishman have essentially the same main issue that I have blogged about: landforms that are morphologically identical to the so-called chevron dunes are well-known in the literature and they are called parabolic dunes. There is no need to introduce a new term:

We suggest that these Holocene features are clearly eolian, and that the term “chevron” should be purged from the impact-related literature.

The eolian origin of the alleged megatsunami deposits is difficult to deny taking into account that wind direction measurements at two sites perfectly match the orientation of the sand dunes (figure from Pinter and Ishman):

Dallas Abbott and her co-workers address Pinter and Ishman’s criticisms in a short reply. This is what they have to say about the chevron dunes:

Pinter and Ishman also claim that chevron dunes in Madagascar and on Long Island are aeolian in origin. We visited both locations and found many features that seem incompatible with an aeolian origin. First, parts of the chevrons in both locations contain fist-sized rocks. These rocks are too large to be transported by the wind. Second, the orientations of the chevrons do not match the current prevailing wind direction. In both areas, some of the thicker sand deposits are being reworked into classic windblown dunes. The direction of movement of these dunes differs 8° to 22° from the long-axis of the chevrons. Third, the degree of roundness of the grains in the chevrons is not characteristic of wind transport over long distances. In both locations, sand grains on the distal ends of the chevrons are not well sorted or well rounded. Sand moved by the wind obtains an aeolian size and sorting distribution after only 10–12 km of saltation transport (Sharp, 1966); however, at Ampalaza in Madagascar, the chevron is >40 km long and rises to 63 m above sea level. At its distal end, the chevron is 7.2 km in a direct line from the coast and contains unbroken, unabraded marine microfossils and conchoidally fractured sand grains. It is impossible to transport unabraded marine microfossils to this location via wind-generated saltation. The site is too far above sea level for storm waves, and there is no local agricultural activity. The chevron was deposited by a tsunami.

Well, these seem valid counterarguments at first sight — but it would be nice and it would be time to see actual data: images, measurements, grain size distributions. Which parts of the chevrons are reworked into eolian dunes? What is the difference in the morphology of tsunami dunes and eolian dunes? How does this relate to flow dynamics? What are those “rocks” that occur within the dunes? Where do they occur exactly? And so on. The fact that the authors end their reply with an unqualified strong statement like “The chevron was deposited by a tsunami” suggests that they are unwilling to admit that not every piece of evidence favors their interpretation and that some legitimate questions can be raised. They do this after first admitting that parts of the dunes were indeed reworked into classic wind-blown dunes.

So, at least as far as the ‘chevron dunes’ are concerned, I have to concur with Pinter and Ishman’s harsh conclusion:

Both the 12.9-ka impact and the Holocene mega-tsunami appear to be spectacular explanations on long fishing expeditions for shreds of support. Both stories have played out primarily in the popular press, highlighting how successful impact events can be in attracting attention. The desire for such attention is understandable in an environment where science and scientific funding are increasingly competitive. The National Science Foundation now emphasizes “transformative” research, and few events are as transformative as an impact. In an era when evolution, geologic deep time, and global warming are under assault, this type of “science by press release” and spectacular stories to explain unspectacular evidence consume the finite commodity of scientific credibility.


Pinter, N., Ishman, S.E. (2008). Impacts, mega-tsunami, and other extraordinary claims. GSA Today, 18(1), 37. DOI: 10.1130/GSAT01801GW.1

Abbott, D.H., Bryant, E.F., Gusiakov, V., Masse, W., Breger, D. (2008). Impacts, mega-tsunami, and other extraordinary claims: COMMENT. GSA Today, 18(6), e12.

Firestone, R.B., West, A., Kennett, J.P., Becker, L., Bunch, T.E., Revay, Z.S., Schultz, P.H., Belgya, T., Kennett, D.J., Erlandson, J.M., Dickenson, O.J., Goodyear, A.C., Harris, R.S., Howard, G.A., Kloosterman, J.B., Lechler, P., Mayewski, P.A., Montgomery, J., Poreda, R., Darrah, T., Hee, S.S., Smith, A.R., Stich, A., Topping, W., Wittke, J.H., Wolbach, W.S. (2007). Evidence for an extraterrestrial impact 12,900 years ago that contributed to the megafaunal extinctions and the Younger Dryas cooling. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(41), 16016-16021. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0706977104

Climbing Ripples I.

Ripples, dunes, cross bedding and cross lamination have always been some of the sexiest subjects in sedimentary geology. They are certainly responsible (in part) for my choice of a certain walk of life that consists of studying dirt. You might say that everything has been already said about ripples and dunes, and you clearly get that feeling if you read some of J.R.L. Allen’s work on the subject (and that can be a lot of reading, by the way) or look at the fantastic multimedia material that David Rubin at the USGS put together. [Of course, there are numerous other authors who have written great papers on the subject, but it is not my purpose here to write a history of bedform sedimentology. Although that would be an interesting subject, if somebody had the time for it.]

However, little of this material gets into the standard sedimentology and stratigraphy textbooks. Maybe rightly so: after all, textbooks are not supposed to include all the details about any particular subject. And maybe there are higher-density issues out there, like whether we should call something a turbidite or a debrite. [Sorry, I could not refrain from typing that].

Take for example climbing ripples. They form when several trains of ripples are superimposed on each other and they seem to ‘climb’, by generating stratigraphic surfaces that are tilted in an upcurrent direction. [Note however that these surfaces are *not* topographic – or time – surfaces; more on that later]. Numerous textbooks and many papers mention climbing ripple cross lamination, but often the explanation is something like “they indicate high rates of deposition”, or “the steepness of the climb and stoss-side preservation are a function of the ratio between suspended-load and bedload”. The question is, what do we *exactly* mean by ‘high rates of deposition’? If we cannot put numbers on it, it is not that informative. Also, by ‘suspended load’, do we mean suspended load concentration? Or deposition from suspended load and bedload, respectively? Those statements are not necessarily wrong, but they do not do justice to the models that have been published many years ago, models that actually have some numbers and equations behind the “conclusion” section.

The key paper that I am talking about is “A quantitative model of climbing ripples and their cross-laminated deposit“, by J.R.L. Allen, published in 1970 in the journal Sedimentology.

The most important relationship that Allen has derived links the angle of climb ζ (see the sketch below) to the rate of deposition M (measured in units of mass over unit time and area), the rate of bedload sediment transport j, and the ripple height H:

tanζ = MH / 2j

This is simply based on decomposing the sediment flux to and through the bed into vertical and horizontal components (plus a relationship between the horizontal sediment transport rate in ripples and the horizontal migration rate of the bedforms). Note that the quantity j refers to the sediment mass that moves through a cross section perpendicular to the general current direction, and does this by being part of the ripples themselves. In other words, there is no direct equivalence between M and suspended load deposition, and j and bedload deposition. Although it is possible that in general suspended load contributes more to M than deposition from bedload, it says nowhere that grains transported within the bedload cannot be deposited on the stoss side of the ripples and thus contribute to the vertical growth of the bed.

Obviously, if the angle of climb is smaller than the dip of the stoss side, there will be no stoss side preservation and the resulting cross lamination will look like in the sketch below (which, by the way, was quite an effort to generate in Matlab; you can easily do this and much-much more with David Rubin’s Matlab code, but I wanted to understand things a little better by coding something simple myself):

This is often called ‘A-type’ (or subcritical) climbing ripple cross lamination, but everybody knows what you are talking about if you “simply” call it climbing ripple cross lamination with no stoss-side preservation.

In contrast, aggradation is much more prominent if the angle of climb is larger than the slope of the stoss side, and in this case deposition takes place on the stoss sides as well, resulting in ‘S-type’ (or supercritical) lamination:

Of course, it says nowhere that the rate of deposition M or the bedload transport rate j must stay constant through time. If the ratio of these quantities changes, the angle of climb will change as well. This sketch shows an example where the rate of deposition M increases through time:

One of the main points of the paper is that there is a fundamental difference between the rate of deposition M and the bedload sediment transport rate j. A rate of deposition larger than zero means that the sediment transport rate within the flow must decrease from an upcurrent position to a downcurrent position; a simple mass balance tells us that this change in the sediment transport rate has to equal the rate of deposition. In other words, the rate of deposition M is a derivative of the sediment transport rate, and as such, does not belong in the same drawer of physical quantities as the bedload transport rate.

Along the same line of thought, Allen emphasizes that climbing ripple lamination says something about flow uniformity and steadiness. A uniform and steady flow can only form a single train of ripples; either non-uniformity or unsteadiness is needed to have climbing-ripple deposition.

That’s it for now; to be continued. It’s time to do my taxes.

Further reading: Brian has a Friday Field Photo and a Geopuzzle on climbing ripples. Here are some pictures and a movie of climbing ripples generated by a turbidity current in a flume.

Some questions about the ‘megatsunami-chevrons’

The allegedly tsunami-related chevron-shaped nearshore deposits are back in the center of attention, at least among geo-bloggers. And rightly so: the idea that lots of coastal sand sheets all over the world were generated by relatively recent, impact-related mega-tsunamis of unimaginable scale is a fascinating hypothesis and, if proven true, it would revolutionize not only our understanding of frequency of meteorite impacts, but also change the predominant views about coastal geomorphology.

However, I have to confess that I find the geomorphologic and sedimentologic side of the argument fairly weakly constructed and documented, at least in the papers I was able to google up. Here are a few questions that could be asked to clarify some issues.

Many of the aerial photographs of the so-called chevrons could be used as textbook examples of parabolic dunes. Parabolic dunes are U-shaped wind-blown dunes usually fed by coastal sand deposits. Their nose points in a downwind direction, that is, the opposite way from barchan dunes. While wind strengths, direction, and sediment source are the main players in the generation of barchan dunes, vegetation plays a key role in the development of parabolic dunes. The ‘arms’ of a parabolic dune are left behind because they have a lower migration rate than the main body and the nose. The lower migration rate is due to plant growth in areas of lower sedimentation and/or erosion. There is a strong correlation between vegetation cover and dune migration rate or activity. This image comes from a recent paper by Duran et al.,

and it shows active (on the left) and inactive (on the right) parabolic dunes. Here is a sketch (source):

So the question is: if ‘chevrons’ are indeed different from classic eolian parabolic dunes, what is this difference, both geomorphologically and sedimentologically? Are they internally stratified? Do they show large-scale cross-bedding? What are the typical grain size distributions? Are they different from typical wind-blown sand? (One of the arguments is that large boulder fields occur in several places; however, my impression is that the boulders described here do not occur within, below, above, or right next to any chevron deposits. This short report claims that large pieces of rock are all over the place in the Madagascar chevrons, but no actual data is presented). The Madagascar chevrons featured in the New York Times show the signatures of typical parabolic dunes: U-shape, vegetated back sides and sandy crest plus nose. Why would an old tsunami deposit be vegetated only in certain places? The simple fact that these dunes are not entirely covered by vegetation suggests that their sandy parts do consist of wind-blown sand. Of course, tsunami deposits can be reworked by the wind, but why would the tsunami-related morphology be so well in tune with the eolian signature?

Second, if the chevrons are indeed produced by tsunamis, the tsunamis must have been humongous. Dune heights are related to flow depth, and a rule of thumb is that flow depth has to be around 6 times the dune height. So a 50 m high dune would require a 300 m high wave. Is that really possible? How big an impact do you need to generate such humongous waves? Also, what about the backwash? Why are most of the chevron dunes pointing systematically in one direction, and do not seem to be altered by any seaward oriented flow?

Third, are any features of the chevrons consistent with what we know about well-documented recent and ancient tsunami deposits? Tsunami-related sandy layers tend to be comparable to turbidites: largely unstratified, normally graded units suggesting rapid deposition from flows of decreasing velocity; they do not show large-scale cross bedding that requires relatively steady flow over longer time scales. In contrast, the chevron morphologies suggest that they are internally well-stratified, as the result of stoss-side avalanches. Here is a sand layer from the 1998 Papua New Guinea tsunami (source):

Obviously, it may turn out that there are tsunami-related coastal dunes and wind-blown parabolic dunes, with very similar morphologies, but fundamentally different origins. At the moment, the geomorphologic and sedimentologic evidence for this extraordinary hypothesis seems quite preliminary. And, needless to say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

ps. 1: Lots of information on tsunami deposits here.
And a paper arguing for wind-blown origin of some deposits from the Bahamas, previously interpreted as tsunami-related: Kindler, P. & Strasser, A. (2000) Palaeoclimatic significance of co-occurring wind- and water-induced sedimentary structures in the last-interglacial coastal deposits from Bermuda and the Bahamas. Sedimentary Geology 131, 1-7.

ps. 2: More good stuff on megatsunamis and their deposits at Highly Allochthonous.

Dish structures

Dish structures are sedimentary structures found in thick sand (or sandstone) that have concave-up, bowl-like shapes. They form when water is trying to escape from rapidly deposited sand but encounters horizontal barriers of somewhat lower permeability (usually zones with smaller grain size and/or dispersed mud). These force the water to flow laterally until it finds a place where it can go upward again. In the meantime, the subtle permeability differences get enhanced as muddy particles are washed away from the cleaner parts of the sand and concentrated in zones of lower permeability. The sides of these lower perm zones bend upward as the water finds its way up. Eventually pillar structures, vertical zones of cleaner sands can form on the sides of the dishes.

Initially dish structures were thought to be related to the (still somewhat fuzzy) mechanics of sediment transport and deposition in high-concentration gravity flows. However, clear examples that showed primary sedimentary structures (like cross lamination) being cross cut by dish structures proved that the latter are secondary structures, formed soon after deposition.

Probably because rapid deposition of sand is a requirement for the formation of dishes, these sedimentary structures are largely restricted to deep-water sands. Here are some examples that I think are blogworthy:

This one is from the northern California coast. Note the pillar structures between the dishes. [Apologies for the lack of scale – I think this bed is about 4 feet thick].

This is a zoom-in of dish structures in the Cerro Toro Formation of Southern Chile. Lighter-colored areas probably contain less mud than the darker zones.

No scale on this one either (there was no way I could climb up there), but trust me, these are probably among the largest dish structures in the known universe. They were photographed in northern Peru, near the town of Talara.

And to prove that they are really big, here is a photo that gives an idea of their scale:

Geologic misconceptions: 2D vs. 3D

[This is a contribution to Accretionary Wedge #5]

One of the problems that a geologist is often faced with is the difficulty of reconstructing a complex three-dimensional geometry and history from limited information that is often one-dimensional (e.g., well data, cores) or two-dimensional (outcrops, 2D seismic sections). Humans in general, and geologists in particular tend to look for evidence where the light is better, and we are tempted to think that the beautiful core we have described, the one good outcrop face we have, the one textbook-quality seismic line on our wall is a good representation of the geology and stratigraphy of a much broader area, and that one can build a coherent story without knowing much about the third dimension.

That, of course, may well be true of ‘layercake’ stratigraphy: after all, a single thickness value can be used to fully characterize the geometry of a layer that has the same thickness over a large area. But, as Brian points out, ‘layercake stratigraphy’ should be considered an oxymoron: every sedimentary layer shows some thickness variations if traced for a long enough distance, even if some layers change their thickness more slowly than others. Stratigraphy is only layercake-like for human observers; subtle but persistent variations in thickness and relief can become striking geometries with some vertical exaggeration. Again, if this variation only occurred in one direction, a two-dimensional section along the same direction would summarize very well the whole story.

However, complex three-dimensionality is the rule rather than the exception in geology. Take for example a meandering river: its geometry is complex enough as it is, a single snapshot of a snaky morphology in time. But try imagining what happens as point bars and levees are deposited and cutbanks are cut; the channel changes its position over time and, over thousands and hundreds of thousands of years, it leaves behind an extremely complicated stack of deposits that would probably be difficult to fully understand even if you somehow could see and describe everything at the greatest detail in 3D. Obviously, a nice outcrop or a number of cores through such a deposit can provide a wealth of information, but we would be fooling ourselves if we thought that a single fining-upward sequence with some cross-bedding (that is, the classic point-bar facies model) was enough to understand a fluvial system.

But strong three-dimensionality is not restricted to fluvial deposits; look at any present-day depositional system in Google Earth and you will find that alluvial fans, deltas, barrier islands and tidal inlets, wind-blown dune fields are all intricate patterns, usually with lines running in more than one direction. Yet many of the classic facies and stratigraphic models are either one- or two-dimensional. Maybe, probably, these are necessary and useful simplifications and conceptual models, but they can only be useful if one is also aware how far they are from capturing the full 3D complexity of nature.

That being said, I have to add that 3D is not always better than 2D. Nowadays, some of the best three-dimensional geological datasets are 3D seismic surveys, and, with the increasing availability of such gold-mines of stratigraphic beauty (there are other uses as well, but let’s focus on one thing for now 🙂 ) it is easy to fall victim to the temptations of colorful three-dimensional displays. Despite claims like ‘3D interpretation and visualization are the future’, the truth is that a good set of old-fashioned maps and cross sections are more valuable in the long term than some glossy presentation slides with no exact spatial location.

Unless, of course, you can visualize and share your data relying on an easy-to-use and truly three-dimensional viewer. Like Google Earth. Even William Smith would be excited about that.

Detail from “Geological view and section through Dorsetshire and Somersetshire to Taunton, on the road through Yeovil toWimborn[e] Minster, &c.”, by William Smith, 1819. Source: Oxford Digital Library

Geo-highlights from Hindered Settling 2007

It is kind of late to do this 2007 retrospective, but what the heck. As pointed out by Ron, 2007 has been the year when a real geology blogger community started to develop. The evolution of Hindered Settling from an eclectic mix of notes about science, geology, skepticisim, atheism, technology, etc., written in Hungarian and in English (or Hunglish?), to a much more geoscience-oriented, English-only site is in part the result of this trend.

So here are a few posts from 2007 that I think should be on this list:

Photos from Brazos Bend State Park – if you live in Houston, Brazos Bend State Park is one of the best places to get away from the city and see some wildlife & nature. No mountains, of course, but at least you can look at oxbow lakes and learn about photography. For some reason, the photos I have taken there over the years have become fairly popular.

On the Great Unconformity, James Hutton, and Geologic Time

Photos and impressions from a stunning glacial lake and delta in the Canadian Rockies, with some sedimentology mixed in

On flame structures

Sedimentology on Mars
– wet or dry gravity flows?

Thoughts about the Black Sea flood and its potential link to the spread of agriculture in Europe

The importance of numbers in sedimentary geology

A few years ago, Chris Paola published a paper in Sedimentology on “Quantitative models of sedimentary basin filling”. I was skimming through it today, and found these thoughts about the role and status of quantitative reasoning in sedimentary geology:

…what is needed is researchers who are skilled in the field but at the same time understand what quantitative modelling is about: why and how people make approximations, why approaches to modelling can and must differ, and, above all, what the mathematics in the models mean physically. Just as there is no substitute for experience in learning to work in the field, there is no substitute for experience in developing physical insight. And there is no shortcut: we need researchers who are good at at both traditional, descriptive geology and quantitative geology. For the ‘modal’ sedimentary-geology student, it is not sophisticated computational skills or training in advanced calculus that is lacking, but rather the routine application of basic quantitative reasoning. This means things like estimating scales and rates for key processes, knowing the magnitudes of basic physical properties, and being able to estimate the relative importance of various processes in a particular setting. Understanding scales, rates and relative magnitudes is to quantitative science what recognizing quartz and feldspar is to field geology. Neither requires years of sophisticated training, but both require repetition until they become habitual.


Some 30 years after the initial ‘physics scare’ associated with bedforms and sedimentary structures, a set of basic principles from fluid and sediment mechanics now appears routinely in introductory sedimentology textbooks. Popular items include settling velocity and Stoke’s Law, the Reynolds and Froude numbers, and the basic force balance for steady, uniform channel flow. This material is typically presented somewhere near the beginning of the book and then is largely ignored. (…) There remains a striking contrast between the role of fluid and sediment physics in sedimentary geology and that of thermodynamics in igneous and metamorphic geology. In ‘ig-met’ texts the underlying thermodynamic principles are introduced and then applied repeatedly. Whereas in hard-rock petrology, thermodynamics permeates the discipline, in sedimentary geology, sediment mechanics still seems a little like taking vitamins: it is surely good for you, but most people cannot say exactly why. There are several reasons for this. In current practice, process-based interpretation is often applied in a piecemeal, descriptive way, to no apparent end beyond providing the interpreter with one more adjective. In addition, the quantitative material that is traditionally taught more often not the most important. For instance, a real appreciation of the implications of the sediment-continuity equation as the governing relation for physical sedimentation is far more useful than the details of sediment-transport formulae or even the definition of the Reynolds number.

Although I still have a lot to learn myself, I couldn’t agree more.

ps. Check out what Lord Kelvin had to say about the importance of numbers in science.

New images from Mars: the idea of very recent watery flows is evaporating

A few months ago I commented on the fact that, despite numerous scientific and media reports, the existence of recent watery flows on Mars is far from being obvious or proven. While there are many rock formations exposed at the planet’s surface that clearly suggest flowing water some time in the ancient past – for example, the delta near Holden Crater -, many of the young gullies and debris fans have no unequivocal signatures of recent watery flows.

The high-resolution images with the relatively recent gullies were released in 2000, and a paper was published in Science about how these features suggest the presence of liquid water on the Martian surface. Last year, this idea seemed to get new support, in the form of some images taken in 2005 were showing sedimentary activity on crater walls, when compared to images shot a few years earlier.

(image from Malin Space Science Systems)
The problem is, as I said, that nothing in these images suggest unequivocally the presence of water. Geologist Allan Treiman published a paper in 2003 stating this, but at that time his views were representing the minority viewpoint. Needless to say, the news reports got rid of the last remaining uncertainties and doubts in the story, and presented it as if it was 100% sure that liquid water exists today on Mars.

Now there is new evidence that the recent watery flows are not so watery after all. Rather, they are probably dust avalanches, dry flows similar to the ones that occur on windblown dunes here on Earth. Such flows can only form on steep slopes, that are close to the angle of repose. The problem, of course, is complicated – as many problems in science are – and there is no simple answer. For example, in the image shown above, you can see a fan that has been reincised after its deposition by its own feeding channel, so that the latest active deposition occurs further downdip. Such erosional valleys are probably associated with turbulent flow, suggesting that these fans were probably deposited by watery flows. More recent images (see below) also show details of erosional channels that are suggestive of watery flows. Unless the dust avalanches were highly turbulent density flows, similar to some snow avalanches, and they were even able to cut channels. Again, I think there is no easy and obvious answer.

photo from NASA’s Planetary Photojournal
In any case, there are two new papers in Science on this subject, check them out if you have online access (I don’t 😦 ).