"I will never kick a rock"

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Robert Titus - page 3

Robert Titus has 157 articles published.

Can you fold a rock? Jan. 24, 2019

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Can you fold a rock?
Windows Through Time
Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus
Register Star papers
March 22, 2012

Sometimes we geologists are just as dangerous as bird watchers. Bird watchers are notoriously bad drivers. They will be sailing down the highway when, all of a sudden, some marvelous bird goes flying by. Cross your fingers if you happen to be driving nearby. And, if you are a birder, don’t write us to deny it; we know better!
Well, as we said, we geologists can be just as bad. We too, can be sailing down the highway when, all of a sudden, there is some marvelous outcropping of rock: something we never expected to see. Watch out, we are liable to hit the brakes and come to a screeching halt, with you screeching too.
Well, you can probably see where we are going on this. Recently, we were on driving on Tarrytown Road, off Rt. 32, on our way to a lecture up at the Thacher Nature Center. Just after the road makes a sharp right turn, there was an absolutely beautiful folded mass of rock. This was stratified rock and, specifically, limestone.
Did we say “folded rocks?” We think we did. If you are not a practicing geologist, that may seem like an unlikely notion. How on earth do you fold rocks? Take a look at our photo and see for yourself. It shows the outcropping that we saw. The strata are from the Helderberg Limestone and there they are, folded into a broad curve, an upside down U. Geologists see such folds a lot; we call them “anticlines.”


It must stretch a good 50 feet from end to end. And it must rise up ten feet or so. But how can such a thing happen? Go find the strongest man you know and give him a rock and ask him to fold it. There is not a chance that he can do that, not even with a small thin rock. But there it is, a great mass of folded stratified rock.
We wonder what professional geologists thought of all this, centuries ago when the science was young. They could not have had any ideas, none at all. It must have been such a mystery. That happens a lot in science, right up to this day. We see a phenomenon and we just can’t explain it.
But geology is not a young science; it is a venerable old one. We have been solving our problems for a very long time now and we can explain a lot of them. So, how did these folds occur? The best answer involves the science of plate tectonics. That was the great revolution in geological thought that occurred in the middle 20th Century. We now know that continents and subcontinents can move across the surface of the Earth. North America is sliding west, right now and beneath your feet. It’s very slow so you can never feel the motion, but it is happening.
Starting during the Devonian time period, about 400 million years ago, a landmass named Avalonia was moving westward across an early version of the Atlantic Ocean, sometimes called the Proto-Atlantic. Avalonia eventually collided with North America and that generated a lot of pressure. The stratified rocks of North America came to be squeezed. You can simulate this with a large paperback book. Hold it in your two hands and press. The book will fold, quite likely into an anticline. One hand is North America while the other is Avalonia. It’s a nice easy lab experiment; you are doing science. Well, that is was happened to the strata along the highway.
But our problems are not all solved. We didn’t hit the brakes because we had seen a fold. We hit the brakes because of which rocks were folded. You see, the problem is that there are no other folded rocks in this vicinity. There are lots of outcrops of the Helderberg Limestone all around, but none of them are folded. These strata lie just a little too far to the west to have been folded by the effects of a colliding Avalonia. You can go see this for yourself. Just wander the highways around there and see what you can find. The answer is nothing but flat lying rocks.
We must say that we are flummoxed by all this. How could it be? A lovely anticlinal fold just seems to rise up out of the ground without a proper explanation. We may be flummoxed, but not bothered all that much. In truth, it is nice to still have mysteries. We don’t envy geologists or other scientists of the future. They will have so many fewer problems and mysteries to go out and solve. Or will they? That’s debatable. But we do have problems. We are blessed with lots of them.

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Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”

Closely shaved rocks Jan. 17, 2019

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Getting a Close Shave
On the Rocks
Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

Rockcraft 101 – the Shaved Rock – We occasionally write about a mythical field we call “rockcraft.” There’s really no such thing or the Boy Scouts would have a merit badge and a handbook about it. But if there were a field of rockcraft it could keep an outdoorsman quite busy. Rockcraft would be the use of signs found in rocks to guide you in the woods. Believe us, glaciers would be responsible for a great deal of rockcraft.
Think about what a major glaciation amounts to. In this vicinity, for example, at about 20,000 years ago, there was a sheet of ice about a half mile thick. Imagine the weight of all the ice. Not only is the pressure of that weight bearing down upon the underlying countryside, but there is the frictional drag which comes with the southward movement of the ice sheet. That’s a lot of stress.
It gets worse. The bottom of a glacier is, to say the least, dirty. There is a great deal of silt and sand down there. Also, there are likely to be many cobbles and boulders being dragged along. And all of this material is pressed onto the underlying countryside. It’s no surprise to find out that a passing glacier leaves a lot of evidence behind.

  shaved off rock

There are a lot of glacial phenomena that we like to watch for. One of them doesn’t even have an official scientific name that we have even seen. So, we just call it “shaved off rocks.” This is what happened. Here in the Catskills there are a large number of sedimentary rocks that are rich in small and large cobbles. The rest of the rock is usually a sandstone, so imagine cobbles floating in a matrix of sandstone. When a glaciation occurs, it is normal for a bedrock to become ground down by the sand and silt in the passing ice. The behavior is exactly like what you get with sandpaper, only this process is much more effective; it can grind away inches of solid rock.
When a glacier is grinding away at a sandstone it is eventually liable to encounter some of those cobbles we mentioned. These may become popped out by the moving ice, but they are more likely to be held in place as they are well cemented into the rock. That means that the grinding process will begin to bevel right through the cobbles and shave off their tops. What’s left behind is half a cobble with the top planed off to a flat surface.
That leaves a very distinctive rock outcropping, a sandstone surface with the beveled off cross sections of cobbles upon it. A good place to go and look at such rocks is along the escarpment trail, right at the edge of the Catskill Front. Your best chances of seeing these are at North Lake State Park, just north and south of the lake itself. We have seen some very nice beveled off rocks immediately south of Boulder Rock and also up on Newman’s Ledge (Park maps will guide you to these sites). If you find either of these locations try to imagine the thick sheet of ice that was once here. Then remember that the ice filled up the entire Hudson Valley below.
If there is anything bad about these shaved rocks, it’s that usually you cannot tell which way the ice was moving. That’s not always the case. When the ice was relatively thin, it did not press down as much. Under those circumstances a solid quartz cobble might put up enough fight to resist the beveling at least to a certain extend. That’s when you get something called a “rat’s tail.” A vee-shaped cone of sandstone lays on the protected downstream side behind the cobble and is sculpted by the passing ice. The protected cone points in the direction of flow. We found one of those on the point of rock between North and South Lakes.
Our field of rockcraft is rarely about very important phenomena. It’s, instead, a field devoted to recognizing interesting things in the rocks. Shaved rocks are not terrible important, except as testimonies to the erosive power of a glacier. That’s good enough.
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Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page at “The Catskill Geologist.” Read their blogs at “thecatskillgeologist.”

The Old earth Jan. 10, 2019

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A very old story
Stories in Stone – The Columbia County Independent
Nov. 23, 2007
Robert Titus

Before I was lured away by the fame and fortune of writing geology columns, I was a professional paleontologist. I published many an article on the ancient life of New York State in professional journals. I speak of this because my science is and has been under assault. The centerpiece of paleontology, like all biology itself, is the great theory of evolution. All of my professional research was founded upon evolutionary theory and the best studies that I ever did myself were documentations of evolutionary events.
I have, three times, followed a fossil species through sequences of stratified rock and watched as it evolved into a second species. I have not only seen species evolve but I have followed them as they evolved into new ecologies. These studies were among the greatest privileges that ever came with my being a scientist. I have seen evolution about as well as anyone, anywhere. That’s not bragging; it’s just the record.

Paleontology is the exploration of life’s distant past. It is nearly heartbreaking that some religious groups oppose my science’s very foundation. Science is not about religion; we steer well clear of the supernatural; ours is the study of the natural world only. We neither oppose, nor support any religion. Some of us practice religions; others, like me, do not.

But we do teach our sciences. Ours is a scientific and technologically advanced society in a competitive world, and it must maintain the highest standards in the teaching of science. There is no place for, say, economics or politics to play a role in classroom science. Likewise, this is no place for any religion to intrude its views. Such notions should be dismissed immediately. Economists and political scientists generally don’t interfere with the teaching of science, but there are members of the religious community would if they could.
Young Earth “Creation Science” and its fraternal twin “Intelligent Design” profess that a great supernatural entity (God) created the world and all life on it. Well, fine, many scientists are religious and believe the very same thing. Where science and these particular religious views part company is over the issue of evolution. Was the Earth and life on it created as we see them today, or did they form and then change naturally? Did life change slowly through time, evolving from a simple ancestral form into what it is today?
In recent years serious efforts have been made in Pennsylvania and Kansas to inject Intelligent Design into high school biology programs. I hate to think of the position that many dedicated biology teachers might find themselves in. Should they risk their careers in defiance of religion? Or should they knuckle under? It is a dreadful dilemma.

All this has been portrayed as part of the ongoing “culture wars” but I disagree. Issues like abortion, school prayer and displays of the Ten Commandments and manger scenes are value issues. People of good conscience can come to different views. But science has, I would hope, always fallen beyond that. We study the natural world as it is, not as we want it to be. We scientists have always determined to steer clear of values as much as possible

This column has found a very considerable body of evidence that, like the rest of the planet Earth, our Hudson Valley has a very venerable geological history. We have, over the last few years, taken many trips into our region’s distant past. We have visited the great deep oceanic abyss that once covered all of Columbia County. Its dark oozy mud is now hardened into the black Normanskill Shale which makes up much of the land along the Hudson. We have also visited the shallow tropical sea that once existed here. Its Helderberg limestones make up all of Becraft Mountain and they are rich in an exotic array of fossils. All those fossil species are now extinct; they were denizens of distant past. At Bash Bish Falls we have watched as great mountains rose to enormous altitudes in what would eventually be the Appalachian realm. Then we saw those mountains slowly weather away. We’ve seen glaciers advance down the Hudson Valley and, after they melted away, we saw Glacial Lake Albany fill most of our valley with icy meltwater. Altogether these historic events took enormous lengths of time: hundreds of millions of years.

If either Creationism or Intelligent Design is true, then all of this geological history is horribly misconstrued at best, fraudulent at worst. I and all of my colleagues are seriously deluded people. Can that be? I have always tried to tell where you can go and see the evidence for yourself. I hope that many of you have done some of the many field trips that I have described. If so, you can judge for yourself. Our valley and our Earth are very old.

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If Creationism or Intelligent Design is true, then science itself is a hoax. Well, keep reading my columns and judge for yourself.
Reach the author at titusr@hartwick.edu.

Geological history of the Hudson Valley

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The Hudson Valley: 400 years? Or 400 million?
Stories in Stone 2009
Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

This year (2009) marks the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s voyage up the Hudson River. This is a real landmark and there will be a large number of events commemorating Hudson’s historic journey, as well there should. We wonder what role geologists can play in all this? We have a way of turning up our noses at mere centuries, you know. Even a few million years is not all that impressive to us.
But, in fact, when it comes to cultural history, geologists have pretty much the same sense of time and antiquity as everyone else. We will be participating in at least one commemorative event in September. We will be speaking at the village of Stuyvesant, presenting a talk on the town’s geological history. We will also be writing up an ice age history for the town of Claverack.
But today, we would like to survey the geological history of the whole Hudson Valley. It has a venerable past and, of course, it dates back a lot more than 400 years. In fact, it appears to date back about 400 million years.
Now We had better issue a few caveats first. The history of any ancient river is always hidden in the mists of time. It is hard, really hard, to document the distant past of any river. You see, they do not preserve records of their earliest times. All rivers are in the business of eroding the landscape they flow across. That erosion destroys all evidences of their pasts. The earliest stages of development of a river’s history are worn away by the latter. We geologists have to summon up all of our powers of deduction to intuit the missing history. So, the story we will relate today does not carry the certainty of other geological tales. The evidence is just not there. Late at night, in geology bars, we happily debate this sort of thing.
As we said, this story, or this version of the story, begins roughly 400 million years ago. At that time New England was recovering from a great mountain building event: the Taconic Orogeny. Massive crustal uplift had created the earliest Taconic Mountains which, originally, towered over western New England and parts of New York State. But by 400 million years ago these mountains had, in fact, experienced a great deal of erosion and they were mere shadows of their former selves. But soon there would be another major mountain building event: the Acadian Orogeny. An even taller range of mountains came to rise above pretty much the same landscapes.
Today all these mountains have largely eroded away. We still have remnants of the Taconic’s, and the Berkshires hearken back to the much taller Acadians. The point of all this, is that the existence of these mountains would form an eastern barrier to any potential flow of rivers. If you look around eastern New York State, and all of Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont you will not see any significant west-to-east flowing streams. No such streams have existed for at least 400 million years.
Erosion of these long-ago Acadian Mountains produced vast quantities of quartz sand that eventually hardened into the bedrock of today’s Catskill Mountains. Originally, these sedimentary rocks piled up right against the Taconic’s and there was, at first, no room for an early Hudson Valley. These sandstones were very rugged stuff and they formed a barrier to any streamflow. Thus, there are no east-to-west flowing streams passing into and then beyond the Catskills.
But rivers, large and small, must have descended down the western slopes of the Taconic’s and when they approached the Catskills they had a problem. Which way would they flow? They couldn’t return back uphill to the east and they couldn’t advance into the Catskills either. That left north or south; they turned south and flowed toward the Atlantic. That first such flow marked the origin of the ancestral Hudson River. It assumed much of its current path, flowing north to south and on into the Atlantic.
There was more to come. During the late Jurassic, about 150 million years or so, the crust of the lower Hudson Valley rose, forcing the Hudson to carve a canyon through what are today the Hudson Highlands. With that, much that we recognize, today, as the Hudson Valley came into existence.

Profiles of Ancient Acadian Mountains and modern Hudson Valley

Is this the true story? We don’t know; it is a good one, but much debate remains. Maybe someday we will have a better version. But, until then, this yarn has a lot to recommend it. The next time you find yourself out in the middle of the Hudson Valley, look east to the Taconic’s, and then west to the Catskills. At first there had just been a small crease here, lying between the two highlands. Appreciate that for hundreds of millions of years the Hudson has been slowly widening and deepening this crease, turning it into our great Hudson Valley.
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Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”

Radiolarians Dec 26, 2018

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Stories in Stone
Invasion of the Radiolarians
March 2007
Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

Mt. Moreno might be considered a nondescript little hill in southwestern Columbia County, it is just not all that noticeable a landscape feature. There is one road that curls around it and you have to know where that is, or you will miss it altogether. There are some very nice views of the Hudson River on this hill but not much else to attract people.
But we are not “people,” we are geologists. If you drive on Mt. Moreno Road along the western fringe of Mt. Moreno, you will notice some pretty nice outcrops here and there. Continue south on Rte. 9G and you will see more. There are stories in these stones and good ones too. It turns out that Mt. Moreno is very well known to New York State’s geological community. It is the site of one of the greatest “infestations” in our region’s history.

   Thick Normanskill sandstones and thin shales

If you do drive past Mt. Moreno, you might decide to pull over and take a look. The rocks are stratified, and they are largely dark, almost black sandstones and shales. This is the Normanskill Formation. But there is more; there are horizons of chert here too. Chert is better known by the word “flint.” Flint is a shiny dark rock which was used by Indians and other stone-age cultures to fashion into stone implements. You have, no doubt, seen some very fine arrowheads and can appreciate the skill that went into making them.
Flint is an extremely fine-grained rock and that’s why it breaks into small curved chips. An experienced craftsman could pound away at the rock and shape it pretty much any way he wanted, and that includes points, hammers, scrapers and axes. But just saying that the rock is fine grained does not do it justice; there must be much more. That’s where we get to our infestation.
Long ago, in fact about 450 million years “long ago,” our Hudson Valley region lay at the bottom of a very deep marine trench. Do you live in the Hudson Valley? It is hard to believe, but right where you are now was probably 20,000 feet, or more, deep, lying at the bottom of the ocean. Take a look out of your window and see the bottom of the Marianas Trench. Imagine very cold temperatures, strange fish and unbelievable high pressures. But mostly imagine it as not being dark as much as completely black. That’s right here, long ago. The time is called, by geologists, the Ordovician.
This marine deep was called the Normanskill basin and it is a very important part of our geological heritage. A land mass, as large as the islands of Japan, was colliding with North America and the crumpling, associated with this collision, helped make the deep basin. There were no fish, but in every other respect, this was a Marianas like trench.
There were volcanoes and probably many of them. Volcanic eruptions produce silica-rich soot, which can rain down on the seas. There waters would thus be very well supplied with silica (SiO2). That is not especially good for most organisms, but it is very good for radiolarians.

Typical radiolarian
If you have never heard of radiolarians, then you are not alone. They are a group of microbes that are mostly unknown to the general public. You might call them protozoa as they are single celled creatures with animal affinities. They are still alive today and they have tiny skeletons composed of silica.
Silica can be hard to find in sea water, it is not very soluble. But after a sizable eruption, the silica content could sky rocket. Those were the good times for our microbes; they had what they needed to make more of themselves. Volcanic eruptions may very well have been followed by enormous population blooms as astronomical numbers of radiolarians appeared.
None of them lived very long and soon, large amounts of silica skeletons were falling to the bottom of our Normanskill Trench. Thick deposits of them piled up in ever thickening accumulations. Radiolarians might have been very small, but hundreds of feet of radiolarian sediments were piling up.
Burial is nearly forever; these deposits have spent almost the entire last half billion years at Mt. Moreno. They have been deeply buried, under an enormous weight of rock for all of that time. What would you look like after a couple of hundred million years of crushing weight? Well, our radiolarians gradually saw that pressure crush them and harden them into that rock we call flint.
So, now you know a lot more about Mt. Moreno than ever before. Do take a look at those shiny flint deposits along the highway. These rocks had a “previous life” as microbes in a very dark cold ocean.
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Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”

The Killer Trees Dec. 18, 018

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The Killer Trees
The Register Star
April 29, 2010
Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

Contrary to the stereotypes, most scientists have rich imaginations and we often like to indulge in wild speculations about our fields of research. Most of the time these ideas can be quickly proven wrong, but sometimes we get an off-the-wall idea that is not so easily eliminated, in fact it may start to look pretty good.
Recently an interesting new hypothesis has been introduced that may offer us a chance to better understand the black shales and dark sandstones of the Catskill sequence. The dark appearance of these strata makes them remarkably eye-catching and they loom, dark and menacing, over the landscapes wherever they are exposed. The best local area is along Rt. 209, just south of the Saw Kill.
  Rte. 209 outcrop
Black stratified rocks are often rich in undecayed organic matter; it’s the black of the carbon gives these rocks their color. This generally suggests to the geologist that there were low-oxygen conditions in the sea waters at the time of deposition. Without oxygen, most decay bacteria cannot function, and they soon die. But why low oxygen? That’s where that new hypothesis comes in.
That new idea is sometimes called the “killer tree hypothesis.” Although the term may seem a little too extravagant, it probably isn’t that far off the mark. The story starts during the middle Devonian when the evolution of land plants was really starting to accelerate. By then land plants had been around for quite some time, but they had only managed to evolve into small forms with thin, weak stems. Nothing that could be called a tree had yet appeared. Trees require wood as support tissue. Not surprisingly, when wood did evolve, large, tall land plants soon followed, and the world’s first forests quickly appeared.


So, what do trees on land have to do with black colored shales in the ocean? Quite a bit, it turns out. Wood had much to do with our story because it allowed trees to grow so tall that they required deep root systems and that’s when we return to the black shale and the poison sea. Complex root systems help to break up bedrock and they greatly accelerate the rate at which bedrock is weathered into soils. Not surprisingly, deep, well developed soils appeared in the Devonian, possibly for first time in history. This was a major transformation of the landscape. Barren landscapes with thin soils were soon replaced by lush foliage and thick soils as our world’s landscapes turned green and blossomed with plants that grew in deep soils.
All of this led to far more rapid rates of deposition in nearby oceans. Thick soils were easily eroded and provided sediments that glutted nearby streams. The sediments were eventually transported into the nearest ocean which was the Catskill Sea. All of this material was rich in dissolved nutrients, materials such as nitrates and phosphates. When these nutrient rich sediments entered the Catskill Sea, they fertilized the water and that led to the next step in what was now a complex chain of events.
The newly fertilized oceans were ideal for algae; they experienced what is called “algal blooms.” Great population explosions of algae occurred in the shallow, surface waters of the Catskill Sea. While all this was great for the algae it was tragic for just about every other category of marine organisms. As the algae died, they were attacked by decay bacteria. The decay process consumed so much oxygen that the seas soon became oxygen-depleted. With the loss of oxygen, bacteria had in effect poisoned their own habitat. Because they needed oxygen too, their numbers soon plummeted and very soon, all types of animals suffocated in the oxygen depleted sea as well. But the algae just kept on proliferating in the surface waters where there was plenty of oxygen, diffusing in from the air. Soon, large masses of undecayed algal material sank to the floor of the ocean. Almost none of this biological matter ever decayed, consequently the sediments that are found there are very rich in black organic carbon. These would eventually harden into thinly laminated, black shales.
When this happens today in a closed body of water, we refer to it as eutrophication. The Catskill Sea was largely isolated from other deep bodies of water. All these conditions promoted what are called thermally-stratified and stagnant waters. The surface layer was hot while, at depths, the lower strata of water remained cool. Dense mats of floating plants and animals grew upon the warm surface waters. Depth stratification and dense planktonic mats prevented agitation and mixing of the waters, causing stagnant sea floor conditions to develop.
Soon a deep basin with a black mud bottom, devoid of life, appeared. Virtually nothing could live in this sea, except at the surface where there was always plenty of oxygen.

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”

Depths of Depression March. 5, 1998

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Depths of Depression
On the Rocks
The Woodstock Times
Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus
Mar. 5, 1998

The sinking of the Titanic is one of the great stories of history. It’s complete with drama, heroism, and even suspense, despite the inevitable ending. Throw in a little romance and no wonder that the current movie has been such a hit. Part of the movie’s success is the allure of the deep. The ocean’s great mysterious abyssal plain retains, even today, a compelling fascination. To scientists, however, equally gripping was the story of the discovery of the sunken liner. You remember it. Intrepid oceanographers, from Woods Hole, Massachusetts, descended to the depths of the ocean’s great abyss in tiny submarines. Powerful headlights shined upon the long unseen sea floor and then upon the wreckage itself. What an incredible moment! The substance of fiction became history.
The depths of the seas had long been shrouded in mystery, and to see actual film from the deep is one of the great achievements of our century, certainly ranking with anything that our space programs have achieved. Much of the abyss is monotonous mud, but there are those many shipwrecks, and a whole exotic ecology of truly wondrous and intriguing animals.
All of this imagery is made even more appealing by the seeming impossibility of traveling to the bottom of the deep sea. Few of us, after all, get invitations from Woods Hole. If you could visit the great abyss, would you leap at the chance, or would you shrink from the real danger of the journey? Would a good movie be enough, or would you have the adventurous streak needed for that perilous trek to the very bottom of the sea? It is dangerous; people have died down there.
Let’s make it easy. We can have you onto the abyss in about half an hour and it will be no more dangerous than a short car ride. Take the Glasco Turnpike east from Woodstock until you approach Mt. Marion. Look for John Carle Road and turn right and head south along it. The path of the road is like that of a sinking ocean liner. First it strays only just a little from its straight path. Then, as if filling up with water, it veers sharply to the left and rapidly descends a steep slope. Near the bottom it lurches sharply to the right and settles, once more, onto a flat floor. And indeed, like a sinking ship, the road has arrived at the bottom of a sea.
There is nothing figurative in our remarkable claim; this is really the bottom of a sea. Or it was. Rising to the right of the road is a cliff of dark black sandstones and shales. These accumulated at the bottom of a deep sea, one that was here nearly 400 million years ago. It can be called the Catskill Sea and the layers of rock you see here were once the muds that made up its bottom.

  Mix of black shales and sandstones

It’s a curious thing, but way back then, the Devonian time period, most of New England was rising into a substantial mountain range. These, the Acadian Mountains, would reach heights of maybe 15,000 feet – perhaps even more! As they were rising, however, the crust of the adjacent vicinities, including today’s Hudson Valley, became depressed. Given time, a fairly substantial deep sea was produced. How deep? we don’t know, but it would have reminded you of the depths of the North Atlantic, a still, mud-bottomed, dark and very silent sea floor.
Much of the roadside exposure is thinly bedded, black shale. That was the mud. Those layers piled up slowly over uncounted centuries. Each thin horizon was once the sea floor. With time another and then another thin seam of mud would accumulate. As the weight piled up the mud was squeezed and hardened into shale. The dark sandstones are somewhat different. These were more active influxes of sediment, moments when masses of sand tumbled into the depths.


There were living creatures at the bottom of this sea. It only took us a short time to find fossil shellfish here, small animals that spent their whole lives on this quiet sea bottom. No crashing ocean liners interrupted their lives. Scientists did come and visit them, but not until nearly 400 million years after their deaths.

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”

A pot hole at Hildene Dec. 6, 2018

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A pothole at Hildene
Windows Through Time

The Register Star

Oct. 22, 2015
Robert and Johanna Titus

It won’t be long before winter sets in, but there is still time to get out and enjoy. Recently we visited “Hildene” the onetime home of Robert Todd Lincoln, oldest son of the president. That’s south of Manchester, Vermont, off of Rte. 7A. Robert Lincoln had a difficult youth. His brothers died young and, of course, his father was assassinated. Later his mother, who had suffered even more, drifted in and out of madness. Still Robert, in his maturity, made a success of himself in business and as a lawyer. Hildene is the spacious home of a successful man. It overlooks the beautiful Batten Kill Valley.
Our interests were not in seeing any geology; we simply wanted to enjoy a historic site. But, geology always seems to follow us around. We are, especially, unable to escape images of the Ice Age. And that is what happened at Hildene. Someone mentioned something called “Robert’s rock” and we asked about that. It turned out to be a mass of bedrock located immediately adjacent to the south side of the mansion. We looked it over and decided that there was nothing much worth writing about.
We are always on the lookout for good topics so this was disappointing. But, just beyond Robert’s rock, was a fine view of the Batten Kill Valley below. We stepped forward a few steps and saw one of those ice age features. It was partially buried and had been partially eroded away, but there it was. It was a pothole. Our picture can’t do it justice to it, but there it is.
Potholes are deep, very circular holes in the bedrock. They are the product of swirling currents of water. The currents flow into an eddy. They carry sand and that acts as an agent of erosion. The water and the sand spin and swirl, and the sand bounces against the wall of rock and abrades it. Over the course of time, if the flow is steady enough, potholes will grow deeper and wider. Each one will, however, always maintain the same shape, a circular hole with a rounded bottom. They can be of any size, large or small. It’s not unusual that, when you find one, you find a lot of them.


                                                              Pot hole has scooped out appearance at back of cliff.

We have written about potholes a few times. There is a fine one in the creek in Canajoharie, NY. Then there is a mysterious one at Olana, the home of famed Hudson River artist, Frederic Church. That last one has been reported in the scientific literature and we have searched for it, but without success. Most potholes are found on the bedrock floors of river channels and most of them date back to the Ice Age. Most all of them formed at the end of the Ice Age when massive amounts of meltwater were pouring down river channels. Those powerful currents cut into the earth and exposed the bedrock. Those eddies of water then eroded the potholes into the newly exposed bedrock. Over the millennia that followed, those potholes are likely to have slowly gotten larger.
Do you see a problem here? We did. The pothole at Hildene certainly does not lie at the bottom of a river channel. It is high up on the top of a steep hill overlooking the Batten Kill. That looked to be perhaps 500 feet below. So, what is a pothole doing way up there? We pondered this and debated it, and we soon came up with a solution to the problem; that’s what scientists are supposed to do.
We began to see the Batten Kill Valley as is must have been during the final stages of the Ice Age. We saw the valley filled with ice. We imagine that this must be called the Batten Kill glacier. It had advanced down the valley and perhaps reached quite some distance farther south. But, the climate began warming up and that glacier began melting back. All the time massive amounts of meltwater were pouring off of it.
What an image this generated. We stood there, just south of the mansion upon Robert’s rock. It was about 14,500 years ago and we looked up at a large glacier rising above us. It had been very warm recently and that glacier was melting about as quickly as is possible. An enormous flow of dirty water cascaded down in front of us; it was almost a waterfall. It pounded loudly into Robert’s pothole and swirled into a sizable eddy. We looked down and saw the power of that flow. The walls of the pothole were smooth and shiny from its efforts. Then we went and toured the mansion.
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Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page, “The Catskill Geologist.”

Reasons for seasons – Why it’s cold Nov. 29, 2018

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The Reasons for Seasons
Stories in Stone
Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

Our Hudson Valley region summers generally bring wonderful weather with dry air and cool nights. Our autumns are spectacular with their foliage. Our winters are dreadful, and once again it is that time of the year. We stoically accept the onset of another cold season and make do with the holidays as some sort of compensation. Few of us, however, know or even wonder why we must endure this annual season. Do you? Some of you might be able to give a reasonably good explanation for our winter season in terms of the Earth’s orbit about the Sun. Many of you, however, might flub the story; it is, after all, just a bit complex.
But it really doesn’t matter; We, in this column, are not interested in the standard astronomical explanation of winter. We would like to consider a deeper reason, in fact, the real reason it is cold out there right now, and that has less to do with the Earth’s orbit than it does with the what’s right above you, or rather, what is not right above you. Read on:
Even if your astronomy is not very good, most of you can probably run through a quick description of the greenhouse effect, it’s one of the leading environmental fears we face today. Briefly, our world’s industries are burning fossil fuels and pumping out large volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide traps solar energy in our atmosphere much the way the glass traps solar energy in a greenhouse. As industrial production of carbon dioxide continues, it may be that the Earth’s climate will warm up with all sorts of unfortunate side effects. Such a fate is sometimes referred to as the “Greenhouse Earth.”
But what if it were the other way around? What if the quantities of carbon dioxide were declining instead of increasing? That gets us to a term which is rarely used – the “Icehouse Earth.” That’s a notion few have been much worried about nowadays, but it actually has happened, and that gets us back to what isn’t above you. In earlier columns we wrote that there were, in the distant past, great mountains towering above our Columbia County region along with most of western New England. These mountains are called, by geologists, the Acadians. They should not be confused with today’s small Berkshires. The Acadians were big; they rose to elevations of tens of thousands of feet and that was right here. That was during the late Devonian time period or about 375 million years ago.
This had been a time when the world was truly a Greenhouse Earth. There was actually 16 times as much carbon dioxide in the early Devonian atmosphere as is today. That greenhouse effect must have been enormous; tropical climates prevailed across the planet. But it was not to last. Here in today’s New England, our rising Acadian Mountains were subject to chemical weathering and erosion. Those processes converted the Acadians into sediment which, eventually, hardened into rocks deposited across the rest of New York State. What is critical here is that the processes of chemical weathering consume carbon dioxide; they take it right out of the atmosphere. As the Acadians weathered away, the amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere dropped dramatically, from 16 times as much as today down to merely today’s levels by the end of the Devonian Period, about 360 million years ago. This, as you might guess, resulted in a reversal of the greenhouse effect and quite a cooling of the climate. In fact, there was an early ice age at the end of the Devonian.
There is plenty we don’t understand about this story, but this was a turning point in Earth history. Carbon dioxide would never again be as abundant as it was during the early Devonian. Its levels would rebound again during the age of the dinosaurs and those great monsters certainly must have enjoyed the temporary restoration of the greenhouse warmth. But there simply would never again be so much carbon dioxide, and the climate would slowly deteriorate, with cooling temperatures, especially during the last 60 million years. Winters, which probably had not been much of a problem during the early Devonian, slowly became longer, colder and more distinct from the rest of the year. Thus, what we know as seasons made their appearance. The process has continued right into our time. In reality, even if industrial pollution continues unabated, ours is a time of an Icehouse Earth.
So, were our old Acadian Mountains responsible for winters? Well, that’s a bit of a stretch, but it is fair to say that the many processes that came to produce and then destroy the Acadians were all part of a climate machine that eventually created the Icehouse Earth climate that we can look forward to for the next three or four months.

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.” Read their blogs at “thecatskillgeologist.com.”

A Bump in the Road Nov. 22, 2018

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A Bump in the Road
The Greenville Press
May 5, 2004
Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

You might call it a hillock, but it’s hardly more than just a bump in the road. Small as it is, it has been posing problems. If you are driving east, you go up and over the bump and then the road veers to the right without much warning. If you are driving west, pretty much the same thing happens only the road veers to the left on the other side. Westbound drivers seem to have the most trouble. If you know the road then there are no difficulties; you know which way to steer. But if you don’t know the road, then you can have real problems on the other side. If you are going too fast, your car may leave the ground for a moment. When you land you have to brake quickly, and steer as fast as you can to avoid running off the road. And there have been some bad accidents here. Two years ago, a helicopter had to be called in to evacuate a victim.

It’s seems that more people don’t know the road on Friday and Saturday nights, but problems can happen on any day of the week. We are talking about County Route 67, across from the Freehold Airport, about a mile west of the Freehold four corners. That little bump in the road seems to always be having accidents. And, even when there are no accidents, it is common to see dark tire marks in the danger zone. People often just avert serious trouble.
These sorts of problems plague many stretches of highway all across the land, but this one is just a little different. This road hazard is also a geohazard. The word “geohazard” was coined some time ago to describe a geological phenomenon that poses a threat to people. Volcanoes and earthquakes are very good examples. Flood prone stretches of rivers are geohazards and so to are landslide prone slopes. So, how is it that some simple bump in the road constitutes a geohazard?
The answer to that question comes from a general survey of the area. This “bump” measures about five feet in elevation and it stretches about 75 feet or so up and down the road. That’s a reasonably large heap of earth. So, how did it get there? If you look just uphill from my bump you will see a fairly decent little canyon which descends from the hill above. Canyons are normally carved by streams, but this one seems the exception; there is usually only a very little water in it. Spring sees a decent flow and the rest of the year is pretty quiet.

And there hasn’t been much water in it for a long time. This canyon is a paleo-form; it is a landscape relict of the ice age. When we started to notice all this, our bump in the road gradually became a very interesting feature. In our mind’s eyes we were transported back to the end of the Ice Age, to a time when the glaciers were melting away from the Greenville vicinity.

April 3, 12,341 BC, late afternoon – This part of the Catskill Creek Valley is very different from what it looks like today. The ice age is ending, and the last glaciers have just melted away from this the lower part of the valley. Up the valley and in the mountains to the south, there is still a lot of ice and it is melting. Catskill Creek is swollen with all the meltwater. It doesn’t even resemble today’s creek. A complex plexus of intertwined streamlets crisscrosses the valley floor. The waters are all brown with mud. In between the streamlets are many low sandbars. Actually. “mudbars” would be a better term for what is here. The mud is shining in the late afternoon sun.
There is some vegetation, but not what we are used to today. The middle reaches of the slopes above me are littered with small pine and spruce. These trees have been migrating north, following the melting ice; they are quite capable of broadcasting their seeds fast enough to keep up with the melting. Someday, there will be real forests here, but that will not be for decades. Meanwhile, up in the Catskills, the slopes are barren except where ice still prevails.
We are standing just east of our bump in the road. From above us, to the right, is the roar of a great torrent of water pounding out of the hill above. This is a meltwater stream and it is white with foam and very noisy with the power of its flow. After cascading out of the canyon above, its currents “land” on the valley flat. The pounding currents splash down and generate a great spray of water. It catches the sunlight in a beautiful rainbow.
Beyond the water reforms itself into a small stream which flows quickly off into the currents of Catskill Creek. These waters leave behind a growing pile of earth. This is the sediment that our meltwater stream has eroded out of the hill above. The torrents were very capable of carrying this material down to the valley flat, but once the current reached that flat, it slowed down and was unable to transport its sediments much farther. That heap of earth was forming into a fine fan-shaped structure. Thousands of years later when the next geologists would come here, they would call this feature an alluvial fan.

Our journey into the geologic past of Route 67 had offered a view of the formation of our bump in the road and it had also explained the canyon above. Now we could take another look at this whole stretch of the highway. Soon, we would see more ice age canyons. There is a fine one right across from the airport’s “art gallery” building. This one deposited another little bump in the road, but there it is not quite as high and there are no surprising bends in the highway. It causes fewer problems. Then, there is another just short of Storey’s Nursery; the old gray farmhouse was built upon that one. This one is very low, and the road is straight, so it should not be a geohazard.
All in all, it would seem that this stretch of Catskill Creek had more than its share of ice age drainage. We are guessing that the hill which makes up the O’Hara Corners area had a fair amount of ice on it after the rest of the local glaciers had cleared Catskill Creek. As this iced melted our several little canyons were temporarily glutted with meltwater. For a short period of time these canyons were very erosive.

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”

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