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The Glasco Pike #1″ the Tropical Sea Oct. 21, 2021

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The Glasco Turnpike 1: its Ancient Tropical Sea

On the Rocks; The Woodstock Times, 2008

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

 

Wherever you might happen to find yourself while reading this, please wave your arm through the air around you and begin to wax philosophical about it. This spot has been here for as long as the Earth has been here and that is about 4.6 billion years. Contemplate the history that has unfolded right here. Think of the plants and animals that occupied the very space where you are now. Geologists are accustomed to being awed by the things they discover and encounter and this is one of those marvels.

This location has a longitude and latitude. Woodstock is at 42 degrees latitude by 74 degrees longitude. If we could go back in time and bring a GPS device, we could find this spot and see what it was like way back when. That notion is mostly beyond the reach of science but just not entirely. We would like to take you back in time to this location and see what it was like at several important moments in time. It is all part of our effort to bring to meaning of the theory of evolution to you, the local readers.

Evolution only works if the world is very old, billions of years, in fact. Our aim over the next five columns is to take a journey through time, curiously our trek will be mostly along the Glasco Turnpike. Let’s head east on the Glasco Turnpike until we arrive at its intersection with Rte. 9. Turn right, which is south, and go a short distance, just a half mile or so. Notice the gray ledges along the east side of the highway. That is our first time-travel destination.

This is the Glenerie Limestone. It is very, very fossiliferous so we geologists are very fond of these rocks; they are always a lot of fun to visit; their time is fun to visit too. As you approach the roadside outcrop, notice the horizontal layering to the rocks. This is, of course, called stratification. The marvelous thing about these horizons is that each was once the bottom of the Glenerie Sea. When you get to the outcrop, put your finger on one of those beds of rock. You are actually touching a seafloor. That’s not exaggeration, it’s not literary license, it’s a fact. The water is gone, and the old sediments have hardened into limestone, but each horizon was once the bottom of a sea.

That was a long time ago; in fact, that’s the whole point of this article. We have now visited the Devonian time period; it is just a little more than 400 million years ago.

Now, take a good look at the various strata. Some are not very exciting, just dull gray rock. But other horizons are enormously fossiliferous. You will quickly find beds of limestone which, upon careful viewing, appear to be all broken shells. Some of these beds are just a complete hash of shells. They have lost their original bright colors, but they are still shells.

 

These are invertebrates, mostly forms called brachiopods. Like modern clams, they had two shells, but that’s all the similarity that the two groups share. Brachiopods are not mollusks; they belong to a wholly different category of invertebrate. They were very abundant back in the Devonian and made up the dominant form of sea life here.

We are the mind’s eye; we have waved our arms through the air, and traveled back into time, all the way to the early Devonian. We find ourselves adrift on the surface of the Helderberg Sea. All around us, in every direction, an empty and endless sea stretches out to the horizon. There is no land to be seen anywhere. The waters are aqua in color, that’s typical of a tropical sea. And that is exactly what the Glenerie Sea is. We feel the water temperature and it is a balmy 82 degrees.

Below us, the sea is so shallow that we can see the bottom. There are active currents and that has swept much of the seafloor clean. We see a lot of pink, very coarse sand drifting and shifting back and forth as waves sweep across the bottom. There are a lot of broken shells down there, most all of them are from brachiopods; they have suffered during common storm events and have come to be broken up into a colorful hash. We look around but do not see and living brachiopods. That’s just bad luck; we picked the wrong moment to visit the Glenerie.

It is an exhilarating experience to travel through time like this. It is such a privilege to see the distant past. But the main point is that this bas been a Darwinian journey to a very ancient world populated by very different creatures from those of today. Such visits are always all too brief. In a blink of the eye, we are back on Rte. 9G. It is winter in Ulster County. The highway is dirty with grit and salt; the outcrop is dirty and drips with icicles.

Next time: the stagnant sea.

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

A high impact event Oct 14, 2021

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A High Impact Event

Stories in Stone; The Columbia County Independent

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

 

Is there anything more emblematic of domestic bliss than a husband and wife trading sections of the morning newspaper over the breakfast table? Well, it’s just a little different when both are scientists. So, it came as no surprise when Johanna, the molecular biologist, handed Robert a copy of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and asked him if he had read an article in it. He was glad she did as he might well have missed it and the story was a very good one. It led the two of us to envision another of those very rough days that occasionally affect Columbia County, and, at the same time, it may have solved several longstanding geological mysteries.

Geologists have long known of a series of enigmatic crater-like structures, scattered across the eastern coastal plain of North America. They are called the “Carolina Bays.” Elliptical and oriented from the northwest to the southeast, they have long suggested an ancient impact event, but we have never been quite sure. We have also long known of a puzzling thousand-year long cold spell called the Younger Dryas. Then there was the mystery of the extinction of the North American megafauna and the sudden disappearance of the Clovis Indian Culture. Many large mammals, and the Indians that may have hunted them, disappeared, or at least declined abruptly about 13,000 years ago. All these puzzling events may have recently been tied together with a thin seam of dark earth. Read on.

It seems a large team of high-powered scientists had recently described an inch-thick, carbon rich seam of earth that is found at sites across much of the continent. The seam is rich in iridium, magnetic micro-spherules, soot and glass-like, carbon-rich nano-diamonds. The seam, in the many places it has been found, is always dated at just about 12,900 years in age. It has been found at exactly the top of strata containing Clovis points, which is also the same horizon where mammoths and other large fossil mammals disappear. The age of this corresponds to the start of the Younger Dryas cold spell. The seam has been found to pass through a large number of the Carolina Bay craters. It is an incredible find; it ties together all the above-described scientific problems. But what exactly does it tell us?

The word iridium may remind you of the ash deposited by the asteroid which is thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs. If that catches your attention, it should. It sounds like we, all across North America, had our own mini dinosaur extinction event. From the composition and abundance of the impact materials it is estimated that the object was actually a comet, and it was four kilometers across.

If you know much about the turn of the century event in Tunguska, Siberia, then you can envision the story. Here in the Hudson Valley, we would have seen the comet coming in from the northwest at an oblique angle. At some point it exploded and the enormous impact of all this caused the great continental glacier below it (remember, this was still the Ice Age) to largely melt. Vast quantities of meltwater resulted. But the impact was so very hot that, not only did the ice melt, but farther south, vast stretches of forest caught fire. Huge widespread wildfires raged across North America. That’s where all the soot came from. An impact of this sort tosses huge amounts of rock and earth up into the sky. When it comes down, friction sets it ablaze and so even more fires are set. You get the picture.

The result is something that is often called a “nuclear winter” and that gets us to the Younger Dryas cold spell. The dark sooty clouds, generated by the impact initiated a cooling that would last for a full millennium. The extinction of about 30 types of large mammals suddenly has a natural explanation. The Paleo-Indians, it would seem, are off the hook for this crime. But human populations plummeted as well. It must have been a very difficult time for Indians and the Clovis Culture disappeared altogether. All this reminds us, once again, how fragile our existences are.

We wrote this years ago. Sadly, this hypothesis currently seems to be falling out of favor.

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

 

 

Mt. Merino in the Ice Age Oct. 7, 2021

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Visions on an Art Trail past – Mt. Merino

Robert and Johanna Titus

On the Rocks

 

We have been touring the Hudson River Art Trail, all this year (2010), and today, sadly, we reach the end of our journey. There are 18 stops up and down in the Hudson Valley, with more being added by the trail sponsor, Cedar Grove, the Thomas Cole Historic Site in the Village of Catskill. This is only number nine, but all the others are quite distant. We have to end somewhere, and we choose to make it here. This final visit takes us across the Hudson River and up to the city of Hudson.

We would like you to go to the Cedar Grove website and navigate to the Art Trail page. Go to the Hudson Valley sites and find stop number nine. It displays an image of Sanford Robinson Gifford’s view of South Bay in Hudson. It was painted in 1864. It’s a pretty scene; the artist was looking across South Bay and toward Mt. Merino. On the left is an old dirt road. It looks to have been an important highway back then. To the distant right Gifford painted the far away Catskill Mountains. He cheated a little to make them look better; he raised them higher than they are. Below the Catskills, a number of sailboats are seen on a very serene Hudson River. To the distant left is Mt. Moreno. Back then the slopes were nearly bare. It was very early autumn and a few trees had just changed color. In the foreground a fisherman is preparing to go out onto South Bay on a small rowboat.

It is a lovely scene, and a very peaceful one; that betrays the fighting going on in Georgia and Virginia on that very day. Gifford knew the scene well; he lived in Hudson and his studio was there. He knew the violence of the Civil War well too; he had served with the Army of the Potomac.

But what does this scene look like today? One of the main purposes of the Hudson River School Art Trail is to allow people to go and see the many locations where these painters worked. We resolved to go and find this site. We crossed the Rip Van Winkle Bridge and headed north on Rte. 9G. We entered Hudson and then started a little exploring. We turned left at Allen Street and left again on South Front Street. About a city block south of the Railroad station we found our destination; it was the very spot where Gifford had worked – 149 years earlier. It wasn’t the same.

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We have marveled, in working on this series, how often the sites our artists sketched were still, today, pristine wildernesses. There are reasons for that. Most of these sites lie within the blue line of the Catskill Park; they have been preserved. But not here; Hudson, during the last century and a half, has endured the rise and fall of all sorts of industries. The scars are there to be seen. In the distance we could still see the Catskills and Mt. Moreno; it was the foreground that had suffered. The old dirt road could still be recognized although it was no longer of much importance. It had, no doubt long ago, been paved. In Gifford’s time it was tree lined; today the trees are all gone. In Gifford’s time the road abutted the very edge of South Bay. Now, running along where the old shoreline was, are railroad tracts. In the distance there is an ugly, black metal bridge. The railroad crosses ground that, back in Gifford’s day, was submerged by the waters of South Bay. That’s where it got so much worse. A great deal of old South Bay had, somewhere along the line, come to be filled in. Today it is a broad flat bare earthen surface baking in the sun. We were guessing that, in the past, this filled-in land must have been used for long forgotten industry.

It gets even worse. We slowly turned a full 360 degrees and surveyed the landscape of a beat up, old, and mostly rundown looking urban center. The last 150 years had seen the rise and, even worse, the fall of industry here. It was inevitable; after all Hudson is a city and cities are supposed to be commercial and industrialized. But it was so sad to see; we can only imagine what Sanford Robinson Gifford would have thought.

In the end, it serves to help a person appreciate the value of the Catskill Park. We can, today, enter the park and see so many landscapes, much as they always have been – still in a nearly natural state. Visiting this part of Hudson is a much more somber experience.

But there is more to the story here; there is an ice age history. The story we saw was surprising. It took us back to the end of the Ice Age. The climate all around the world was warming up. Glaciers were melting and the newly freed waters were raising sea levels everywhere. South Bay is one of many similar embayments along the banks of the Hudson River. When you look at the local topographic map you learn a great deal. South Bay lies at the downstream end of a complex tributary system. It began to submerge as those sea levels rose.

Imagine, long ago, when this stream flowed into an older Hudson River. That was when there were still so many glaciers worldwide that sea levels were lower than they are today. So too, the Hudson River and its tributaries occupied much lower elevations than now. The South Bay creek flowed into that lower Hudson River and carved valleys to that lower level. But then the glaciers melted, and sea levels rose. The Hudson rose too and the lower reaches of the South Bay creek were flooded, first with water and then with sediment. So, melting glaciers and rising sea levels combined to create South Bay and its once very handsome natural landscape. Gifford painted it in a near natural state. We should all be glad that he did.

Our journey along the Art Trail is now completed. It is a series of lessons in art. But we found it to offer lessons in ice age history as well. We have very much enjoyed our journeys and hope that you will follow in our footsteps: and also follow in those of our revered artists.

 

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

 

Gullies in Plattekill Clove Sept. 29, 2021

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Cabin Tales #Five: The Gullies

On the Rocks; The Woodstock Times; July 14, 2011

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

 

We have been exploring the vicinity of the little red cabin, property of the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development. That land is at the top of Plattekill Clove, and it lies on the slopes of Plattekill Mountain. The best way to hike up into the mountains here is to take the Green Trail, that’s part of the “Long Path” which extends 347 miles from Ft. Lee, New Jersey to Altamont, New York. Watch for the local trailhead along County Rte. 16; cross the bridge there and begin your ascent into the Catskills. Along the lower reaches of the Green Trail is some very prominent evidence of bad land management.

Today’s hiking trail was once a highway and a busy one at that. We have to imagine what it was like to be here during the late 19th Century. Back then Plattekill Mountain was the heart of the then very active bluestone industry. Dozens of quarries were being worked at that time and an enormous amount of bluestone was being transported off the mountain. Most of it probably traveled south, down the Meads Mountain Road and on through Woodstock for eventual shipping, by boat, down the Hudson. The rest traveled north, down the Green Trail.

Today’s Green Trail would have been a primary road back then, and it probably saw a fair amount of traffic. And the evidence is that it saw enough to cause real problems. You start your modern day hike up the trail and very soon you encounter deeply rutted gulley’s close to the modern trail.

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These ruts have a history, and it is one of environmental abuse. They, no doubt, date back to the late 19thCentury; they are contemporary to the times when this was a real highway. You have to remember that this “real highway” was a dirt road back in those days and that horse drawn vehicles were driven up and down its lengths. The wheels of such wagons had a deeply rutting effect upon the paths. When it rained those ruts would have been widened and deepened. We don’t know how much care went into maintaining these roads and it is easy to guess that they were left to get worse and worse.

In fact, that is what the evidence suggests. There are not just one set of ruts, but at least two. It appears that the original highway came to be so badly rutted that it was abandoned. A new road, near to the first, came into use.  With time, and years of more use and abuse, that second pathway became unusable, and it too was abandoned.

Somewhere along the way, history saw the end of this, the Overlook Mountain Road. Most likely the bluestone industry came to be abandoned as the quarries gave out. There was still a small tourist industry up there with some boarding houses, but eventually that ended too. There were fewer reasons for people to live up there and they moved on. The road simply fell into disuse, and it evolved into today’s hiking trail.

Human feet can be quite erosive, but they are not the match to horse hooves and wagon wheels.  Our hiking trails, like the roads of old, have to be abandoned or occasionally rerouted in order to minimize the damage. In my years we have seen a number of hiking trails blocked off and moved to a new direction. It is something that just has to be done.

But we are just a little more enlightened nowadays. We purposely reroute our trails, usually long before the damage gets out of hand.

It is not as if Nature is all that careful about what she does to the landscape. In exploring Plattekill Mountain, we had no trouble finding naturally rutted creek beds. Plattekill has very steep slopes and when natural creeks descend them, the tendency is to damage the landscape not much less than horses and wagons. Such creeks are very erosive when they descend steep slopes. If you do a little exploring along the Green Trail, you will see these too; watch for vertical bedrock walls one either side of these creeks. When we were there in the summer of 2010 it had been dry for quite a spell. Those erosive creeks should have had a lot of water flowing through them, but they were dry as a bone.

The good news comes with time. Nature heals man’s wounds.WeI saw little or no signs that any of this erosion had been recent. In fact, these ruts seem to be a century or so in age with no evidence that they will ever be active again. Nature does her healing by allowing plants to grow over the damage and by overseeing the return of soil profiles. These old ruts have a soft, rounded shape to them. It will take a lot of time to complete the healing. But, in the meantime, the great ruts that can be seen here form a somber testimony to what happens with poor land use.

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook pagre thecatskillgeologist.com.

Nosy Neighbors Sept. 23, 2021

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Nosey Neighbors

The Woodstock Times; On the Rocks

Oct. 8, 1998

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

 

 

Autumn is much too important to miss. The Hudson Valley, with its many scenic roads and bulging farm markets, is a lovely place to spend the autumn of the year. But as far as we are concerned, the place to be in this season is up in the mountains. Our Catskills are certainly at their best from the middle of September to the middle of October. They’re not all that crowded in this season either, especially if you are among those fortunate enough to be able to get out on a weekday.

One of our favorite locations in this season is Vroman’s Nose. “Nose” seems to be one of those peculiar local words. You see it used in the northern Catskills and Mohawk River valley. It refers to a small, but steep, mountain. Most of the noses that we have heard of are in the Mohawk Valley, but Vroman’s Nose is a fine one. It’s located in the Schoharie Creek Valley a few miles south of Middleburgh, close to Rt. 30.

Vroman’s Nose is isolated from the rest of the hills in the region. This steep hill is sometimes referred to as the “sky island of the Schoharie.” Its morphology is the product of glaciation. Its peak was overrun by a glacier. The passing ice yanked loose large blocks of rock which left behind a south facing cliff. Above that is a beautiful glacially polished ledge called locally the “dance floor.” From the dance floor is a spectacular view of the lower Schoharie Creek valley. You can see for miles up the valley from up there.

 

Vroman’s Nose is almost entirely undeveloped and covered with forest. That might not have been. We have heard that some time ago there were plans to either sell the land for building lots or even to construct a motel up there. Talk about a room with a view! At any rate, the thought of developing the site alarmed many in the local population, especially the still abundant descendants of the Vroman family. One thing led to another and soon there was a Vroman’s Nose Association. This group of good neighbors was able to raise enough money to purchase the site. Now Vroman’s Nose is a community park, open and free to all.

Drive north along Rte. 30. You won’t have much trouble identifying the sky island; you’ll spot it miles away. Across the highway from the nose, if you watch carefully, there is a home with a box marked maps. Wally Van Houten, a retired earth science teacher, lives there and takes care of the mountain. The map shows three trails to the summit of the nose. The green trail is the best for family hiking. It’s the long way, but the slope is gentle. The red trail ascends straight up the steep front of the mountain, and it can be a very difficult climb. The blue trail is the “Goldilocks” trail, it’s just right.

On your way up you will pass a number of exposures of dark, fine-grained sandstones. These belong to the Devonian Hamilton group, and they run about 375 or so million years old. These sediments made up the floor of the Hamilton Sea that was once here. It was a relatively shallow water, mud bottomed ocean. The dark color tells us that, unfortunately, there was relatively little oxygen in the quiet sea floor. That means that few animals could survive and indeed there are not many fossils to be found on Vroman’s Nose. We have found a few shellfish, brachiopods mostly, and there are some worm burrows as well. Not much of a haul.

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

Hurricane Katrina’ floods – right here? Sept 16, 2021

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Katrina’s Floods: Here?

The Daily Star, 2007

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

 

The enormous destruction inflicted upon New Orleans back in 2005 fulfilled warnings that many geologists had been making for years. The city lies below sea level, hiding behind man-made levees, and it was only a matter of time before river flooding or hurricane storm surges would overwhelm it.

At the heart of the problem is that New Orleans and all of the Mississippi Delta has been sinking. It’s the weight of the sediment that the river has carried onto the delta that has pressed down and caused the subsidence. Ironically sedimentation builds and maintains the delta, but at the same time, causes it to sink. In recent centuries, however, man has disrupted this process. We have built levees to prevent floods and they have mostly done that, but they have also kept those floods from carrying sediment to pile up onto the delta plain. Without those sediments the entire delta is doomed to continue its sinking, probably into the sea.

It used to be a lot like that in Oneonta.

Take Main Street south to Rte. 28. Turn right and begin the ascent up Franklin Mountain. Travel exactly two miles and you will see a sequence of red shales and sandstones along the left side of the road. You have entered the realm of the great Catskill Delta. A bit less than 400 million years ago a sizable ocean, the Catskill Sea covered all of central and western New York. Large rivers flowed out from New England and into that sea. Those rivers deposited a delta that easily matched the one in Louisiana. The sediments of that ancient delta are still around; they have hardened into the rock that we call the Catskill Mountains. Our mountains are a fossil delta. Those roadside red shales and thin red sandstones are the deposits of the Catskill delta plain. Much of that material is the product of the many floods that occur in such a setting. These are exactly the deposits that levees have kept from forming in Louisiana. What you need to know is that these sediments always accumulate at just about sea level.

Continue a very short distance up the road and pull off at the dirt lot. Look downhill and you will see some thick gray sandstone ledges. Look uphill and you will see some more red shales and then another gray sandstone ledge. Those two sandstone ledges are petrified rivers of the Catskill Delta. Both of them, in their own times, were also formed at exactly sea level. The red shales are floodplain deposits, essentially floodplain soils.

   Gray sandstone, above, is river channel deposit. Red shale below formed on floodplain.

We have traveled about 50 feet uphill from our first sea level outcropping. We have probably also traveled through thousands of years of sedimentation, but we are still looking at deposits that formed at sea level. What gives? What happened long ago is that the Catskill Delta subsided slowly and, as it subsided, sedimentation filled in behind so that the net effect was no change in elevation at all; sea level was maintained.

Let’s drive up the road to the top. There, near the garage with all the hub caps is still another gray sandstone ledge. Again, we are looking at another delta river. And, of course, this one too was deposited at sea level. Now we have risen 200 feet and now, of course, the crust beneath us has subsided an equal amount.

Our journey illustrates the inevitability of what is happening to New Orleans; someday it too will sink 200 feet and by then it will be totally buried, a fossil city completely forgotten. Man can fight this with levees; man will lose.

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

Birth of a Gorge Sept 9, 2021

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Birth of a gorge

On the Rocks the Woodstock Times, Sept 2011

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

 

We are the mind’s eye, the human imagination and we are located about where Stoll Road is today. The date, however, is Jan. 15, 18,608 BC. This, it will turn out, will be the coldest day in the history of Woodstock. Tonight, the temperature will plummet to 63 degrees below zero. This is the peak of the Ice Age but, even so, that sort of temperature is extreme.

We look around and, even though it is late afternoon, all is very dark. We are at the bottom of the Hudson Valley Glacier and a few thousand feet of ice lie above us; no sunlight will be seen here today.

If there is no light, there are at least a few sounds to be heard. From time to time there is a low groaning. Then too, there are occasional loud snaps that echo through the ice. These are the sounds of ice under intense strains. The glacier is frozen solid, and it should not be moving, but there is a constant pressure from the north. Back in Labrador the glacier has been slowly accumulating new ice and the weight of that ice, here in the Hudson Valley, is being translated into a southward shove.

We, the mind’s eye, rise up through all of the ice and ascend into the Arctic sky. Below us and all around we see nothing but the flat white of a great ice sheet. We climb higher into the sky and then disappear into the vastness of time. The mind’s eye can do that . . .

When we reappear, we are back in the Stoll Road vicinity. It is August 8th, 14,387 BC. All around us, it is still black; the Hudson Valley glacier still covers all of our region. But that will not last. Today, above the ice, the temperature will climb to 63 degrees above zero, the hottest it has been here in about 9.000 years. Up above, the ice is melting and melting quickly.

That is why it is so noisy all about us. Again, the glacier is groaning and popping; the ice is now very unstable, sinking here and there and lurching to the south as well. But there is more: now there is a low roaring sound in the distance. Nearby there are gurgling noises as well and these are pretty loud. The glacier is melting, and enormous volumes of water are draining through the ice. We cannot tell it from down here, but the ice is thinning. Once again, we disappear into the ether of time.

Now it is 600 years later; the date is July 14, 13,787 BC and during these 600 years most of the Hudson Valley ice has melted away. The climate has continued its warmup. Now, all around us, is the very loud roar of flowing water. We find ourselves in a powerful current of water. We are within a sub-glacial stream. It’s a raging torrent of ice water which has originated from the melting glacier, drained through the ice and formed into this stream. The current would kill mortal humans, but we are the mind’s eye and cannot be harmed. We can stand still in the flow, if we want, or we can drift along with it, if that is preferred.

We stand in the current for a short period of time and feel the pressure of the passing ice water. Not infrequently, large blocks of ice pass by. It is clear that we are watching the very disintegration of a great glacier. Suddenly, and with a loud crash and violent splash the icy roof of this stream caves in. Now sunlight shines where it has not been for thousands of years

Over a period of days we watch as more and more of our stream’s roof caves in. We soon observe that this flow is something that one day in the distant future will be called Sloan Gorge. We are privileged to be there at its birth. The current is so powerful that it transports great blocks of rock. We can watch boulders as they bounce by, buoyed by the pressure of the flow.

The river we see here today is a raging, foaming, angry torrent. Its powerful flow is enormously erosive; it is carving the canyon that today’s inhabitants of Woodstock are familiar with. The flow is dense with sand and that exerts a powerful abrading force on the bedrock. Sloan Gorge is having its violent birth. We, once again, disappear into time.

We reappear and it is August 24, 2008. Sloan Gorge is its modern self. It is not a torrent; in the late summer it is a place with little water at all. Sloan gorge is what geologists call a “paleoform.” That’s a landscape that is an anachronism; it belongs to that other time: the time at the end of the Ice Age. But, we are the mind’s eye and it has been our privilege to see the Gorge as it was.

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

Noah’s flood in the Catskills – Sep. 2, 2021

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Cabin Tales #5: Noah’s Flood?

The Woodstock Times; On the Rocks June 16, 2011

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

 

 

We would like to resume some columns in a series that we have called “Cabin Tales.” We have spent a lot of time at the little red cabin at the top of Plattekill Clove, owned and loaned out by the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development. As something of an experiment, we have been writing about geological topics that we discovered within a mile of the cabin. We wondered just how many we could find. How rich is the geology there? The answer is very rich. Here is another episode.

We headed east from the cabin, down the highway, early one morning with nothing particular in mind. But we didn’t get very far before we made a discovery. There, at the absolutely highest crest of the hill, and alongside the road, was a beautifully rounded, fist sized cobble. We looked around and soon found another. Then, in the course of a few minutes, we found several more. We knew what these were; they were stream washed cobbles. Long ago they had traveled down some rugged whitewater creek and over a period of time Nature had done her lapidary work; the cobbles, once angular, came to be sculpted into the sinuous roundness we were admiring. None of these were perfect spheres, but all displayed, to one extent or another, a good deal of rounding.

But what were stream-rounded cobbles doing at the very top of the highest level of the highway, far from, and above any stream? There never could have been a stream up here. Well, we knew the answer to that question too and we will reveal it later on, but we had the good sense to appreciate that we had just experienced one of the great geological questions of the early 19th Century. We had, intellectually, been transported back to the boundaries of science as they were before the 1820’s!

Way back then, geology was on the front lines of science; this science was making many of its greatest breakthroughs; it was becoming modern. Our forebears were a sharp eyed lot. They looked, and they noticed, and they saw the same sorts of things that we do today, but they were doing it for the first times – including seeing stream rounded cobbles away from any streams. But they often were quite different from modern geologists; they made their observations from the point of view of a very different mindset. Many, probably most, were devout Christians.

If you are a very religious scientist, before 1820, and you are looking at stream rounded cobbles, lying where they should not be, then there is a very appealing interpretation – these could be cobbles left over from Noah’s Flood!

Ou find, at the top of Plattekill Clove, is not an uncommon one. If you are careful and watchful, you will likely find rounded cobbles all over the place, including many found very great distances from any stream. Lots of geologists were finding these back in the early 19th Century and they eagerly made the Noah’s Flood interpretation. And this included some of the most respected geologists of the time. The one we think of first was Benjamin Silliman, a professor of geology at Yale. Silliman enthusiastically argued for the Noah’s Flood hypothesis all during the 1810’s. Such geologists thought that their views and, in fact, the views of science in general would and should confirm Christian theologies. They certainly did not see science as a servant of religion; it just never occurred to them that there ever should be a conflict. Science would reveal the mind of God, just as the Bible had. The science of nature was thought to be a second testament. There had been a Noah’s Flood; most did not doubt that. If God had revealed the flood in the Bible, then surely, he would have revealed it in the geology. So surely there was a global geological record of that flood. You can imagine how thrilled they must have been to see the rounded cobbles such as we have been speaking of.

But slowly an alternative hypothesis was being developed. During the 1820’s the climate was warming up as the world emerged from something called the Little Ice Age. In Switzerland glaciers were actively melting and the landscapes revealed by the retreating ice showed features that, without any doubt, were the product of those glaciers. And those features included a lot of stream rounded cobbles.

Evidence of a great Ice Age began to emerge, and it was soon clear that almost all of northern Europe and northern North America had been glaciated. As the glaciers advanced and retreated there was a lot of meltwater streams, all producing rounded cobbles. Renewed cycles of glaciation saw glaciers picking up those cobbles and transporting them all over the place. Now there was a perfectly logical explanation for the widespread distribution of stream rounded cobbles, and it had nothing to do with Noah’s Flood.

Acceptance of the glacial hypothesis came quickly as geologist saw how much evidence there was for it. The glacial hypothesis came to be promoted to the glacial theory, and it has been, since then, one of the foundations of modern geology.

There are several morals to our story. First, science has always been careful to avoid the supernatural. Science cannot explain the supernatural; we cannot formulate hypotheses about the supernatural, nor can we test such hypotheses. We study the natural world, not some hypothetical supernatural one.

Ou second moral has to do with “intelligent design” advocates who argue that there should be a place for the supernatural in science, specifically that we should find a place for God in science. The answer to that is that there was a chapter in the history of science when we did exactly that; we searched for the works of God in the science we were uncovering.  But when we did so, it just did not work very well. We do so much better when we search for and find natural explanations for the natural phenomenon we study.

Ou walk down the canyon at Plattekill Clove had carried us through some important moments in the very history of science, a remarkable traverse.

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

Hurricane Irene in Windham Aug. 26, 2021

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Visiting a disaster: Windham

Windows Through Time; The Register Star

Sept. 2011

Updated by Robert  and Johanna Titus

 

We have all seen the television reports of the enormous disaster that has befallen the Catskills. Hurricane Irene passed straight through the heart of our home mountains and unloaded vast torrents of rainfall upon us. Some of the worst hit areas were in Greene County, especially the towns of Prattsville and Windham. I don’t have rainfall numbers for these locations, but there were about 13 inches of rain in nearby Durham and Hunter, and it was very bad throughout the county. The television coverage was very gripping; it was riveting to see the devastation done to these many towns and the harm done to so many lives.

But it is altogether another thing to go out and visit one of these villages and see for yourself what has happened. My wife, Johanna, and I wanted to go to Prattsville, which was hardest hit than of all, but that was out of the question. Prattsville was too wrecked to let people in. We were able to visit Windham and see what was going on there.

As we approached the town from the east on Rte. 23, we began to see some of what had occurred. Along the side of the highway great ditches had been cut into the ground. Some of them had even scoured into the road itself. I got out and looked at erosion that had, in some places, cut four feet down into the earth, all the way down to bedrock. Now we could see that, at the height of the storm, Rte. 23 was, in effect, converted into a river. That’s common in flood events. The currents had been so powerful that it had turned the ditches into great gullies.

We continued on toward Windham and, to our left, the valley of Batavia Kill opened up. It’s a large valley and, behind it to the east, it stretches into Black Dome Valley. Black Dome Valley reaches eastward and ends in a large bowl-shaped basin which reaches into the high front ranges of the Catskills. The bowl was probably carved by an Alpine glacier towards the end of the Ice Age. Bowl is a good term and accurately portrays what this basin was doing on that Sunday. This bowl began the flood. It was receiving that massive rainfall, collecting it, and passing it on down Batavia Kill – to Windham.

We diverted our trip to visit the village of Maplecrest and there we saw a stunning testimony to the power of the flood that had developed. The bridge at the west end of the village was completely destroyed. In the five miles that the Batavia Kill had flowed west from that bowl, it had already swollen so much that it welled up over its banks and had undercut the bridge, leading to its destruction. Soon that torrent would flow on to Windham. We followed.

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As we entered Windham, we immediately saw the whole effect of the flood. What has to be understood is that, at Windham, the Batavia Kill had not just risen, it had expanded. Most floodplain floods are relatively calm; there are few powerful currents. But what happened at Windham is that the river had become bigger than ever. As its currents had grown more powerful, they had swollen into the town. The Main Street business district was literally located in the middle of a powerful river. And that stream was being fed by the pounding rain in the Black Dome Valley. It was an awful moment.

But we got there during the aftermath, the flood had subsided, and people had come out to start dealing with the damage. Folks were not dazed; they were very unhappy, but they had determination on their faces as they set about doing what they could. We saw large hoses emerging from basements, pumping water out of family homes. We saw several cars where they had been lifted up, carried by the flow, and dumped by the flood. Windham had been, and will be again, a pretty town. Part of that is from the bluestone sidewalks, but we saw that the flood had been strong enough to lift up many of those heavy stone slabs and sweep them some distance. Whole stretches of sidewalk had been carried off. We saw lampposts that had literally been bent over by the currents: something frightening just to contemplate.   Storefronts, here and there, had been badly damaged. Many homes had seen their first floors flooded. It was a terrible sight. We were looking at all of Nature’s power.

We asked if we could drive on to Prattsville and were told that no, things were very much worse there. Soon we would start hearing about Martinsburg, Middleburgh, Phoenicia and many others.

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

 

 

The Mountain House Ledge Aug. 19, 2021

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Visions of a distant past, Pt. two –“From the Mountain House Ledge.”

On The Rocks; The Woodstock Times, Dec 23, 2010

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

 

Certainly, one of the very most historical sites and all of the Catskills is the Mountain House Ledge at North/South Lake State Park. We are betting that most of you have been there. It’s a grand, broad ledge of sandstone, jutting out 2,000 feet above the floor of the Hudson Valley. It’s claimed that you can view some 70 miles of that valley from this site. It is, of course, the very place chosen for the building of the Catskill Mountain House in the 1820’s. That was the grandest of the grand hotels of the Catskills during the Catskill’s most fashionable era. Back then a Gilded Age aristocracy visited the site and its hotel. A Who’s Who of the American elite spent time here. But something spiritual happened here too. America came to love nature at this location. It was here that the Hudson Valley school of art was born, when Thomas Cole spent a summer sketching the scenery. Almost equally distinguished was the poetry and prose that was inspired by this “sublime” landscape.

There is no way to overestimate the historical heritage of these few acres of land. The whole culture that we equate with the word Catskills had its birth on the Mountain House Ledge. It is one of our favorite places to visit and we have begun any number of geology field trips and walks right there. But we frequently like to go there by ourselves and sit upon the rocks at the rim of the ledge. We touch the sandstone and look around. All that lies above the ground, above those rocks, belongs to history. Here Roland Van Zandt and Alf Evers prevail. They explored the history of this site and recorded its many influences on our culture.

But we touch those rocks again. Everything from the ground down belongs to us! All around is the historical heritage of culture in the Catskills; below is a geological past that reaches back hundreds of millions of years. More than a mile of sedimentary rock lies beneath us, and every stratum has its own history, from its own time. We touch this ledge and contemplate its petrified sand. It accumulated on the floor of a river channel. That was during the Devonian time period, about 375 million years ago. A river flowed by, right here, and then it disappeared off to the west. We gaze that way and then turn around and look, more intently, eastward hoping to see where that stream and its sand came from. But . . . there’s nothing there but the great emptiness of the valley.

For us, suddenly, it is the Devonian; we sit just above the stream in the middle of the flow, looking east. To our left and right are the low banks of the river. Rising above them are trees, at least they must be trees; they are so exotic, so strange in appearance. Frail looking trunks rise 20 feet above the banks. There are no branches, not until the very top is there even any foliage. And this defies all efforts at description. There are no leaves, just something that might be called fronds. But even that term does not suffice. These are among the most primitive “trees” known to history. They represent evolution’s earliest efforts at the very concept of a tree and evolution is not yet very good at that. Their “foliage” defies description because nothing like it grows green today.

We look again to the east, but we cannot see very far; the scenery blocks our view.  We are the mind’s eye; we can go anywhere and do anything the human imagination can conceive. We rise up into the Devonian air and from a new high perch, we can again look east, this time actually surveying what is there.  Before us, and rising miles into the sky, are the slopes of a great mountain range. These are the Acadian Mountains, and, during the Devonian, they rose as high as the Himalayas of today. Between those mountains and us lies an expanse of green; this is the first and the oldest forest in the history of our planet.

Beyond, the greenery thins out as the lower slopes of the Acadians rise up. Evolution has not yet brought forests to anything but the lowest of elevations. These Acadian foothills are thus bare of trees; only brick red slopes are seen. These are nearly devoid of life. Above, it only gets worse. The middle slopes of the Acadians are gun metal blue. They are cut by deep and jagged canyons and ravines. These speak of moments when intense rainfall has resulted in terrible episodes of unrestrained erosion. Up there, no roots are found to slow the powerful effects of eroding torrents. This is the genesis of all the sediment that composes, in modern times, that mile of sedimentary rock which we call the Catskill Mountains.

We gaze still higher up. These are great mountains, and the distant images of high elevations are not as clear. Those high slopes are gray, and they too seem to be cut by more gulches, gullies, and defiles. Then, abruptly, there is a perfectly horizontal and sudden transition to a pure brilliant white. This is the snow line. These are the tropics, but those elevations are so high that snow lasts throughout the year.  At the top of the Acadians lies an icy and jagged skyline. Pointed peaks gleam white above.

We are the mind’s eye and our journey into the past is a grand experience, but we cannot stay for long. This image of the ancient Acadians is a fleeting one; it blurs and then fades. We stand, once again, looking east across the Hudson Valley. Beneath us is that mile of sedimentary rock; before us is the memory of the mighty mountain range that, long ago, eroded away to make these Catskills.  Only the low Taconics remain.

Mountains, like people, have ancestors.

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

 

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